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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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