Diggin’ In: Christmas fern good for use in holiday décor

December 14, 2015

There’s something comforting about the sight of evergreen ferns in the midst of cold weather when so many plants are brown and dormant.

One of those is Christmas fern, a December native plant spotlighted by Helen Hamilton, past president of the John Clayton Chapter, Virginia Native Plant Society, and Gustav Hall, professor emeritus of biology at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. They also co-wrote "Wildflowers and Grasses of Virginia’s Coastal Plain." Learn more about the native plant society at

Scientifically named Polystichun acrostichoides, Christmas fern features leathery fronds that can be used in fresh holiday décor.

"Children enjoy imagining the leaflets represent Santa’s boots, as each leaflet broadens into a boot-like top where it attaches to the scaly stalk," says Hamilton.

Christmas fern is hardy and sturdy, making it a groundcover that tolerates conditions such as the edges of walkways. Cold hardy in Zones 3-9, Christmas fern likes full to part shade and well-drained soil. It tolerates some sun and dry conditions.

Ferns are reproduced by spores, according to Hamilton, a retired biology teacher living in Williamsburg, Va. fertile fronds with shorter leaflets carry clusters of spores on their undersides. Zillions of spores are produced but only a few germinate in a moist habitat where they grow into tiny green plants that produce eggs and sperm to create new plants. Christmas fern can be seen widely in area woodlands because winds disperse spores there.

In harsh winters, some fronds on Christmas fern will turn brown and wrinkle; you can remove them so new ones looking like silvery fiddleheads can emerge in early spring, suggests Hamilton.

"In a garden, new plants should be installed after the last frost, and pine needles, shredded bark or leaf mulch around the plants will help protect them and hold in moisture," she says.

Christmas ferns can be grown indoors, in front of a window with morning sun and afternoon shade. The soil should be kept evenly moist but not over saturated, and regular misting helps increase humidity.

Virginia’s native Christmas fern is seen on Page 163 of "Flora of Virginia," a 2012-published book that features 3,164 species and 1,400 original illustrations. The book is part the "Clayton & Catesby: Botanical Virginia" exhibit on display now through Feb. 28 at the historic Jamestown Settlement along the Colonial Parkway in Williamsburg. Clayton and Catesby came from England to study and document New World plants.

"The images on show are of plants that would have been easily recognized by the three cultures that inhabited early Jamestown and in particular by the Powhatan Indians, who would have used many of them for medicine and food, says Peter Armstrong, senior director of museum operations and education for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

"The importance of these early European botanists like Clayton and Catesby who recorded plants and birds of the New World cannot be underestimated, for it is their scientific record from more than 200 years ago that helps us understand how the natural world has evolved."

The three-month exhibit features 17 hand-colored engravings created from Catesby’s watercolor paintings of American flora and fauna, all on loan from the Garden Club of Virginia. The exhibit also includes tools used to study and collect plants, and biographies of Catesby and Clayton. Learn more about the exhibit at or call 757-253-4838.



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