Soft Shield FernPolystichum setiferum Divisilobum Group
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Polystichum setiferum Divisilobum Group
Outdoor Growing zone
Partial Sun, Shade
The Soft Shield Fern is a striking and beautiful fern with fronds that are divided and divided again, creating a wonderful lacy look that makes this plant incredibly ‘ferny’. Despite the soft look it is not delicate, and is an excellent and easy garden fern. The stems of the fronds are covered in soft brown hairs that make a lovely contrast, and they rise up and over to almost horizontal, making radiating star patterns. It rises to around 2 feet tall in a clump about 3 feet wide, and it’s perfect in the front of shady beds, in woodlands, by water or on rocky slopes. Contrast it with bold-leaf larger ferns or with Hosta and large-leaf shrubs.
Partial to light full-shade is ideal for the Soft Shield Fern, and it grows well beneath deciduous trees or in shadow zones. It does best in soil rich in organic materials, that are moist but drain, but not in stagnant, wet soil. It doesn’t have pest or disease problems, and both deer and rabbits leave it alone. Remove dead or dying fronds as needed, and cut back completely in spring if it becomes untidy and damaged in severe winters. The baby plants that develop on older fronds can be grown in pots until they are large enough to plant in the garden.
When growing ferns in your garden, the secret to making them look their best is to grow ones that look as different as possible from each other. This means contrasting larger, bold plants that have broad, flat fronds with smaller types that have a more feathery look. Many ferns have divided leaves, but for truly fine and feathery divisions, the best plant to consider is the Soft Shield Fern, especially the garden varieties that have been selected for the way their fronds have ‘extra’ divisions. Collectively called the Divisilobum Group, these are ‘ferny ferns’ that bring a wonderful softness and airiness to your planting. The fronds have a fascinating brown, furry stem that strikingly contrasts with the green of the lacy leaves, and they arch up and then over almost horizontally, creating a radiating, ‘starfish’ pattern that is captivating. For a unique and magical softness that no other plant can bring to your planting, this is it.
The Soft Shield Fern is a perennial evergreen fern forming crowns of fronds growing upwards and outwards in a star pattern. The fronds are up to 3 feet long, and rise first upwards and then arch over to a near-horizontal angle, so that the mound of leaves is no more than 2½ feet tall. An established mound of leaves will be as much as 3 feet across. Each frond has a central stem that is densely covered with a mat of soft, reddish-brown hairs that make a striking contrast with the green of the leaflets. Along that central stem there are many side-stems, branching outwards, and along them are many leaflets, that are in turn divided into more tiny leaflets. This abundance of tiny leaves gives this plant a very unique feathery look that is charming. The leaves are evergreen, with most new ones growing up in spring, but also at other times, often following periods of rain. New stems, called ‘fiddleheads’ have bunched leaflets like a clenched fist, and slowly uncurl as they develop – beautiful and fascinating.
Ferns of course don’t flower, but clusters of spores, that act like seeds, grow along the underside of the leaves. As well, this plant is almost unique in developing tiny baby plantlets on the upper side of older fronds. These tiny plants will grow and root once the frond falls to the ground, and they offer you a batch of ‘free babies’ to plant in your garden – a bonus from Mother Nature.
This fern is striking alone, but it looks even better planted so it contrasts with larger-leaf ferns and other large-leaf perennials and shrubs. Use it to soften the edges of a pathway, plant it by water, or up against a striking boulder or large rocks. It can be used to fill spaces in the front of shrub beds, out in woodland areas, although it isn’t native to America, if you are a purist. This is also a great plant for container-growing on a shady terrace or patio. It always looks attractive, and isn’t too big. It can only be successfully overwintered in a planter or pot in zones 7, 8 and 9.
The Soft Shield Fern is hardy in zone 5, although it may be deciduous or semi-deciduous. It is evergreen and hardy in all warmer zones, with perhaps some winter damage in zone 6, quickly regenerating in spring. It is hardy in zone 9 areas that are not very hot and dry in summer.
Except in the coolest zones, where it will enjoy some direct morning sun, the Soft Shield Fern grows best in dappled shade, underneath deciduous trees or in the shadow of buildings or tall trees. It grows best in richer soils containing plenty of organic material like compost or rotted leaves, but that are still well-drained. Avoid areas where water tends to stand on the surface for long periods, especially during winter. It is not drought resistant – the foliage is too fine – and it does best with regular watering.
Pests and diseases won’t be issues with this fern, and both deer and rabbits usually leave it alone. Watering, removing dying and dead fronds as needed, and perhaps mulching in spring with rotted leaves is all the care it needs to thrive and always be beautiful.
If you are looking to see the Soft Shield Fern growing wild, Alaska is the last place to start looking, even though, strangely, this plant is sometimes called ‘Alaska Fern’ in America. Called Polystichum setiferum, it can be found growing all across Europe, from Ireland to Greece, and further east as far as Azerbaijan, as well as throughout North Africa. It is usually found growing on slopes in woodlands, and in hotter countries it will be higher on mountains, where it is cooler. The belief it comes from Alaska might be due to the very similar name of a related fern – although very different in appearance – that does come from Alaska, called Polystichum setigerum.
For a truly ferny look in your garden, grow the Soft Shield Fern. We have found some top-quality plants that show the special divided foliage effect very strongly, and such plants are always in short supply. Order now – they will soon all be gone.