Flora Fridays – December 15, 2023

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🌿🌿🌿🌿  Ferns   🌿🌿🌿🌿

In this edition of Flora Fridays, we touch on the amazing world of ferns – nature’s intricate and historic wonders. Ferns have been around way longer than flowering plants; since the time of the dinosaurs. From their delicate texture and resilient crowns to their roles in woodlands and in the landscape, ferns offer a glimpse into the elder world of all plant life. Ferns are beneficial to wildlife as well as enjoyed by people. Ferns offer something for all  – explorers of wooded areas, bird enthusiasts, and of course gardeners. Come along as we explore two local species that will captivate both novice and seasoned green thumbs alike. One of the best characteristics of ferns, at least for gardeners, is that deer don’t bother eating them. Even more, you can enjoy the following evergreen species year-round!

Meet the Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), where a wonder of nature meets the festive spirit of the holiday season. These evergreen native ferns are aptly named for their retention of long lush green fronds throughout winter, adding a touch of green to winter landscapes. Christmas ferns play a vital role in the landscape as well as in wooded areas. Fronds of this fern, the leaflike parts of the plant, provide cover and nest building materials for birds and small animals. Humans have also used the fronds for wreath making. If you’d like to do this, only pick 2-3 fronds per crown so as not to remove too much energy reserves from the plant. In the garden, these ferns make great candidates for a clumping groundcover in shaded areas. Both in nature and in the garden, they prefer moist to wet areas with high organic matter. In wooded areas, you can find them in moist well drained areas such as rich thickets and around stream banks.

A bunched Christmas fern in the woodland. It’s a green machine! Photo taken in December 2023.

Pendulous Christmas ferns growing on a bank, above the dry stream bed

The next fern we cover today are the ebony or brownstem spleenworts (Asplenium platyneuron). These small, ancient ferns bring history and diversity to the flora of North Carolina and beyond. These ferns have characteristic dark black stems and small, feathery fronds. Close inspection reveals the amazing intricacies, as if the fronds were imprinted with a fine brush. Breathtaking. This fern is well adapted to thrive in a variety of environments, making it resilient as much as it is fascinating. In the forest, it is found in similar areas as the Christmas fern. Comparing the two, ebony spleenworts have smaller, more feathery fronds. Planted together, they provide diverse texture and stature to your landscape, and the ebony spleenwort’s striking black stem adds more color during the winter.

Ebony spleenwort fronds poking up through the dormant understory

A nice representation of what ebony spleenworts look like during warmer months. Photo credit: Krings, A. 2017–present. Common Ferns of North Carolina. Version 1.0. North Carolina State University, Raleigh. [http://herbarium.ncsu.edu/common_ferns/; (Dec. 13, 2023)]

To learn more about ornamental ferns in the landscape, check out this short presentation by the J.C. Raulston Arboretum: 

We hope you have enjoyed today’s Flora Friday, and are inspired to get out and tune your eyes to showy plants with winter interest. Flora Fridays will post once per month during January and February 2024. In March, we will return to regular bimonthly articles as spring kicks into gear. 

N.C. Cooperative Extension, Montgomery County Center staff wish you a quality holiday season, filled with love, gratitude, reflection, and reverence. May festivities and fellowship bring you joy. We also acknowledge holidays can be a difficult time, and welcome visitors to stop by the office so we can share and feel with you. We are here to listen to your needs with compassion and guide you to appropriate resources. If you are struggling, please do not hesitate to reach out. If this season is particularly challenging, Montgomery County has confidential crisis services available at no cost. Please view your resources by clicking here; you have choices to reach out or have support come to you during difficult times. Other county information can be found on our county resource page

Like what we post? Please let us know by providing feedback in the box below. Check out past Flora Fridays