Western Sword FernPolystichum munitum
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Outdoor Growing zone
Full Sun, Shade
The Western Sword Fern is a bold and striking evergreen native fern that grows 3 to 5 feet tall, depending on your garden conditions. It has broad fronds with horizontal leaflets, of glossy green that grow upright and then arch over, making a beautiful effect in your beds. It is notable for growing in the shade of conifer evergreens like fir and cedar, where most plants won’t grow, and tolerating drier and hotter conditions than most other ferns can. Plant it beneath trees and large shrubs, in woodland gardens, by water or ponds, along shady paths or on rocky slopes. Mix it with other shade-loving plants like Hosta and Astilbe for beautiful effects.
The Western Sword Fern will grow in some sun in cooler zones, with afternoon shade, and in full shade everywhere. It will be most luxurious and large in moist, rich soils, but it still grows in drier, poorer soils as well. Established plants are more drought tolerant than many other ferns are. Pests, diseases, rabbits and deer are almost never problems. Remove any dead fronds as needed, and cut down to the ground in late winter if it becomes overgrown and untidy after a few years.
Ferns are wonderful additions to your garden, especially if you have a lot of shade. Even then, some ferns struggle underneath evergreen trees, but not the Western Sword Fern. Uniquely able to grow in the shade and drier soil beneath tall evergreen trees – which it does when growing naturally – this beautiful evergreen fern is a great addition to your garden. It has that classic ‘ladder’ look to the leaves, and these arch up and over, creating dense clumps of fronds rising over 4 feet long under good growing conditions. This is also a fern that, once established, takes drier conditions than almost any other, and grows in hotter and more arid regions than we expect of ferns. Like a big brother to the smaller, more well-known Christmas Fern, it brings a big, bold effect that is a perfect contrast to big-leaved plants like Hosta.
The Western Sword Fern is a classic-looking tall fern, sending up fronds between 3 and 5 feet tall, and forming a dense clump up to 5 feet across. The whole clump rises up in a very attractive way, with fronds curving over gracefully, making a glorious woodland picture. Each green frond has a strong central stem, and along both sides are narrow leaflets (pinnae), like the rungs on a ladder. These are longest around the middle of the frond, becoming shorter towards the end, creating overall a shape like the tip of a broad-sword. The fronds are evergreen, dying after a couple of years, and new fronds grow from the ground, mostly in spring, rising up as long, curled fiddleheads. Ferns don’t produce flowers, but later in the year, if you turn over a frond, you will see clusters of spore-producing cells, called spori, arranged in a pattern which is important in the correct identification of the fern by botanists.
For shady parts of your garden, especially in those most-difficult places beneath tall evergreen trees like fir, spruce and cedar, the Western Sword Fern has to be the ‘go-to’ choice. Nothing else takes the drier, acidic soil found in those spots, but of course growth will be taller and more luxurious in richer, moist soils. Grow this fern alongside a pathway, or in the middle of woodland beds. Plant it beside water, on slopes, by a pond or in a damp, shady rock garden. As a native plant it is wonderful for enriching areas of natural woodland, without resorting to alien species.
The Western Sword Fern is hardy across most of the country, from zone 5 all the way into zone 9. It does grow most prolifically in areas with cooler, damp summers, but it is a fern that grows better in warm and relatively arid areas that almost any other.
In zone 5 the Western Sword Fern will grow with quite a bit of sun, but it does best in areas with at least afternoon shade, or in warmer zones and drier locations it is best in full shade. It grows best alongside conifer evergreens, which create the acidic soil it enjoys, and it prefers richer, moist soils containing lots of organic material. Regular water, especially in spring, is important, but established clumps have good resistance to dry periods in summer, compared to many other types of ferns.
There really is no maintenance required for this beautiful fern. Remove dead fronds as needed, and if established clumps should wither in drought, or die back in a hard winter, cut them off to the ground – new fronds will soon push up in spring and early summer. It doesn’t suffer from any pests or diseases, and both deer and rabbits normally leave it alone.
The Western Sword Fern, Polystichum munitum, grows all through western North America, from southeast Alaska to southern California, and inland to Montana and Dakota. It is also found in northern Mexico. It is the western equivalent of the smaller-growing Christmas Fern, Polystichum acrostichoides, found throughout the East, from Canada to Florida and Texas. It was first studied and named by the German botanist Georg Friedrich Kaulfuss, based on samples sent to him by the adventurer, poet and botanist Adelbert von Chamisso, who probably collected them around San Francisco.
Ferns bring a unique look to every garden, and they are wonderful for making shady areas look rich and full, especially when planted with contrasting plants like Hosta, and flowering perennials like Astilbe, or areas of leafy ground cover like Pachysandra. We find it very difficult to keep in stock these popular plants, so order now, while we still have plants available.