Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Who can fear the winter stern while still there grows the Christmas fern."

Christmas Fern - Polystichum acrostichoides
The Christmas Fern - Polystichum acrostichoides

"When frost has clad the dripping cliffs
With fluted columns, crystal clear,
And million-flaked the feathery snow
Has shrouded close the dying year;
Beside the rock, where'er we turn,
Behold, there waves the Christmas fern.

No shivering frond that shuns the blast
Sways on its slender chaffy stem;
Full-veined and lusty green it stands,
Of all the wintry woods the gem.
Our spirits rise when we discern
The pennons of the Christmas fern.

With holly and the running pine
Then let its fronds in wreaths appear,
'Tis summer's fairest tribute given.
To grace our merry Yuletide cheer.
Ah, who can fear the winter stern
While still there grows the Christmas fern."
                                                  -W. N. Clute

People of science are often people of art. How can one delve into the wonders of creation without being astonished by the order and beauty? Willard Nelson Clute (1769-1850) was one of them. He was born in the village of Painted Post, Steuben County, New York. The name of the village comes from a painted totem that early explorers found at a river junction. The rivers, creeks and mountains nearby must have inspired his love of nature. He pursued his passion. Clute founded the American Fern Society in 1893. In 1928, he became professor of botany at Butler University, Indianapolis, and curator of the botanical garden. He authored over a dozen botanical books, some of which his wife, Ida, illustrated.

In Our ferns in their haunts: a guide to all the native species, Clute waxed poetic about the Christmas fern. Who could resist? As he noted, "To the hunter, the trapper and the rambler in the winter woods, the Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is a familiar species. In summer it is not especially noticeable, but in the snowbound season, the cheerful, fresh-looking fronds are sure to attract the eye."

They did attract the eye, and were extensively harvested for Christmas greenery arrangements. Apparently all the collecting did little to diminish the numbers of the Christmas fern. It is widely distributed throughout its native range, from Quebec to north Florida and to eastern Texas. Because it is so robust, gardeners find it to be easy to grow.

Its botanical name, Polystichum acrostichoides (pronounced pol-IS-tick-um ak-ruh-stik-OY-deez), refers to the many rows of spores, and the fact that it reminded someone of another genus of ferns, Acrostichum. The seldom-used name, Nephrodium acrostichoides, is synonymous.

Christmas fern is hardy from USDA climate zone 3 to 9. It prefers well-drained, humusy soil like you'd find above creek banks and on woodland floors. Shady locations under hardwood trees are best, so it's an excellent choice for shade gardening. Soil pH may range from 5.6 to 7.5. Once established, it is somewhat drought tolerant and should be considered for xeriscaping. Being a fern, it is deer resistant.

I can't imagine why tilling such a site would be necessary. It's always good to take a soil sample to your nearby Cooperative Extension Service for analysis. Follow the recommendations.

Christmas ferns grow up to 24 inches high and 12 inches to 18 inches across. Dig planting holes about 12 inches apart. The holes should be no deeper than that of the rootballs. Water the plants in their pots, then plant them, watering more as you go. When planted, the tops of the rootballs should be visible; do not bury them under soil.

If you haven't already come to appreciate the beauty of Christmas ferns, I'm sure you will. Good cheer!

Read more about Christmas ferns.

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