SWORD FERN, WESTERN SWORD FERN
Pronounced: po-LI-sti-kum mew-NEE-tum
North America: Alaska, British Columbia, California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, Yukon Territory.
Sunset zones: All (Western).
USDA zones: 3-8.
Height: 5 feet (152 cm).
Width: 4 feet (121 cm).
Evergreen, narrow, lance-shaped, pinnate, dark green fronds.
Partial shade to shade.
humus rich, moist soil.
Divide in spring.
Not that long ago, it was thought it best to cut all fronds off in February before the new growth began. We now know that the plants are healthier if you trim only the dead fronds.
Rainy Side Notes
Polystichum comes from the Greek words polys—many, and stichos—a row, which refers to the way the sori is arranged. (See above photo.) Munitum means armed with teeth.
This native fern looks grand in the Northwest garden, especially planted in mass plantings or mixed with ferns or other shade tolerant plants. We often take it for granted because it is so common, yet a stand of sword ferns along woodland's edge is a beautiful sight. It is one of the largest polystichums in cultivation.
It is not surprising that native sword ferns, so prevalent in the maritime Northwest, played an important plant in the lives of the indigenous people. It grows in the shade of our conifer forests where few plants dare to venture.
As food, the rhizome was baked in pits or boiled. Medicinally, the young, curled leaves were chewed for sore throats and tonsillitis. Chewed leaves also were used for sores, boils, and to help the progress of childbirth. Sores were washed with an infusion from the boiled rhizomes. As a dandruff cure, the hair was washed in the boiled roots, and the spores were scraped off the leaves as a treatment for burns.
The leaves had many uses from lining baking pits to making mattresses. Berries were dried on leaves spread out on drying racks because the berries would not stick to them. Children played a game with the fronds, seeing who could pull off the largest number of fern leaves while holding their breath saying pila with each leaf pulled.
Polystichum munitum is a 2005 Great Plant Pick.
Top image photographed in the Treherne and Michel garden on Bainbridge Island, Washington.