Christmas fern is native to a huge area of the eastern United States (the cutoff being a roughly diagonal line running from the westernmost tip of Lake Superior down to New Mexico). It is easy to cultivate: although it relishes woodland conditions and rich, moist soil, it will also grow happily in poor, rocky soil and even on dry slopes.
Apart from its adaptability, its main claim to the gardener’s attention is that it is evergreen, even in the bone-chilling reaches of USDA Zone 3; the common name, in fact, comes from the fern’s supposed use in holiday decorations by European settlers. In spring, the unfolding crosiers add to the plant’s beauty, for each one is densely covered with silvery white scales that make it stand out dramatically against the dark fronds.
Curiously frilled, pinked and ruffled cultivars exist, but they are not commonly offered by nurseries and require quite a bit of sleuthing to track down. (A good place to begin is the American Fern Society.) But the fresh greenery of the ordinary form, bringing life to a carpet of November leaves or January snow, is all any gardener could ask for.
AT A GLANCE
Type of plant: evergreen fern
Size: fronds 1-3 ft. long, 2-5 in. wide
Habit: forms multiple crowns growing from a slender, branched rhizome
Frond characteristics: blade pinnate; pinnae auricled (i.e., with an earlike lobe) on the upper margin near the rachis; fertile fronds longer and more erect, with narrower pinnae
Natural range: Maine west to Minnesota, Texas, and New Mexico, south to northern Florida
Hardiness: USDA Zones 3-9; Sunset Zones 1-9, 13-24, 28-43
Cultivars: ‘Cristatum’, with crested blade tips; ‘Incisum’, with pinnae deeply toothed; ‘Multifidum’, with pinnate-pinnatifid blades
Propagation: by division or spores
Companions: Asarum canadensis, Athyrium filix-femina ‘Minutissimum’, Carex muskingumensis, C. siderosticta ‘Variegata’, Hosta ‘Little Aurora’, Luzula sylvatica ‘Aurea’