Deer Fern

When I wrote to you last month the year had just turned and we were lamenting short days and long nights. I mentioned a couple of evergreen ferns to brighten your garden throughout the winter season. I didn’t get to finish, so let’s continue where I left off in January.

The third common evergreen fern in Pacific Northwest woodlands is deer fern, Blechnum spicant. It’s not quite as common as the sword ferns and licorice ferns I wrote about last month but deer ferns are equally garden-worthy.

Deer Fern at base of Daphne odora 'Marginata'

Deer Fern at base of Daphne odora ‘Marginata’

Here’s a deer fern in my Bellingham garden on the morning of January 30 as I pen this post. It’s nestled at the edge of a bark path in my shade garden, tucked under the edge of a decidedly non-native Daphne odora ‘Marginata’. It’s been growing there quite happily for over 10 years since I purchased a 4” pot at a local nursery. At this time of year it’s beginning to look a little bedraggled, but that’s to be expected with cool temperatures, rain, and a little snow that buried everything earlier this month.

 Deer Fern sterile fronds in winter

Deer Fern sterile fronds in winter

This is another portion of the same deer fern, photographed minutes later. Those are pin oak leaves and sweet woodruff under the fern fronds.

Deer fern is different from many other ferns in having separate fertile and infertile fronds.

Deer Fern fertile and sterile fronds

Deer Fern fertile and sterile fronds

The fertile fronds stand stiffly upright and bear spores on the underside of narrow pinnae. After all the spores are dispersed they die back to just the rachis and mere remnants of their former selves. The infertile fronds are generally a little shorter and more flexible, with a graceful arching appearance. The photo above was made at VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Deer Ferns under Red Alders

Deer Ferns under Red Alders

While I grow deer fern in my somewhat messy mixed shade border, they’re also very effective as accent plants in a moss garden. That’s the way they’re used at the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island. In this photo they’re at the base of red alder trees.

Whether your garden style is messy or neat, deer ferns want acidic soil in a shady site. In the wild I see them often along trails where they get a little sun during the day. They like moist, but not wet soil, with a good amount of humus. Don’t bother fertilizing them as they grow just fine with a minimum of nitrogen they get from decomposing fallen leaf litter. They spread by underground rhizomes, but slowly. If your clump gets too big you can easily divide it with a shovel.

Deer fern is circumpolar, but widely disjunct. That means it is native to many places at northern latitudes around the world but not evenly distributed. In North America it is a distinctly west coast species, ranging from Alaska all the way down the coast to California. In British Columbia find it in coastal regions, but also on the west slope of the Rockies. In Washington it’s found in all west-side counties and then reappears over in Spokane County. In California it grows in coastal counties as far south as Santa Cruz. In Oregon it ranges from the coast to the Cascade crest.

 Deer Ferns

Deer Ferns along Wolf Creek Trail in Oregon

In the wild, deer fern grows with a wide range of trees, shrubs, and forbs. It is an indicator of most to wet, nutrient-poor to moderate nutrient forests. Occasionally abundant, it’s more often scattered through the forest. As might be inferred from the common name, the US Forest Serivce reports that deer fern is important forage for deer, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk, moose, and caribou. I don’t have deer in my garden, but if you do you should expect some nibbles on your deer ferns.

 Oregon Fawn Lily, Yellow Violets, young Deer Fern

Oregon Fawn Lily, Yellow Violets, young Deer Fern in native plant garden

Deer ferns are cultivated frequently so they’re generally available in many nurseries. If your local nursery doesn’t have them, my friend Judith Jones at Fancy Fronds in Gold Bar, Washington has them.

© 2012, Mark Turner. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. Sue Sweeney says

    I live on the east coast but I find your articles fascinating – and a major asset for our long-term data base (what us old-ish people call a “library”).

    I also took my first look at your photo site today. Amazing collection of work – I confess I didn’t look at all 14,934 wildflower photographs. No one in the NW can look thru this collection and still say “I don’t know what to plant”. Every garden designer in the NW should have this bookmarked!

  2. says

    Thank you, Sue. Certainly not everything on my wildflowers site is worth growing in a native plant garden. Some just aren’t very interesting and some are really hard to grow. But that leaves a lot of plants which are very garden-worthy. I’m glad you east-coast folks can appreciate my distinctly northwestern perspective. There aren’t a lot of plants native to both the east and west coasts of North America. I grew up in West Virginia and when I moved to Washington state I had to start over learning the flora.
    Mark Turner recently posted..Snow and Slow: Forest in my Pocket

  3. says

    I love Deer Ferns! I’ve planted a few in my yard, both in front and out back in the woods. I haven’t seen any deer eating them though- I’m not sure why since deer do visit the yard.

    Great photos- spring is just around the corner…
    Mike B. recently posted..Insect Eaters in the Skies

  4. says

    The eastern part of North America is also home to wonderful native ferns. They’re different that what we have in the northwest, but no less valuable additions to a native landscape or garden. The evergreen one I remember best from my youth is Christmas Fern, Polystichum acrostichoides, which is in the same genus as the sword fern I wrote about last month. There are also lots of nice deciduous ferns.

    • says

      I’m definitely not up on Florida ferns, Loret. But a quick search turned up two members of the genus Blechnum in your state: Blechnum occidentale var. minor, which is a rare and state-endangered species found in just a few counties; and Blechnum serrulatum which is found in much of Florida except the panhandle. See and search for Blechnum.
      Mark Turner recently posted..Colorful Las Vegas

  5. Colleen says

    I have several deer fern in my garden in Vancouver BC and have been told they need to be pruned in the spring thus allowing the new growth to appear plus look not so unsightly. Is this correct or should I simply be leaving them alone and allow nature to care for itself.

  6. says

    Colleen, in our Bellingham garden, not very far south of you, the deer ferns are pretty much self-pruning. You can certainly tidy them up in the spring like any other perennial, but it’s not necessary for new growth to appear. Think about how they grow in the wild where no one is pruning them.
    Mark Turner recently posted..Plant of the Month: Western White Trillium

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