Bring the spirit of the woodlands into your garden with three of British Columbia’s native ferns
Few plants bring the lush feel of the woodlands to the garden like our native ferns. While they don’t boast any showy colours, their rich exposition of emerald to deep-forest greens adds undeniable beauty to the landscape, complementing blooms with subtle elegance.
The delicate grace of ferns would seem to imply a weak constitution, but this is far from the truth. As natives, these plants are tough customers in our climate. Their adaptability and artful form make them truly worthy garden subjects. The following are three handsome, long-lived native ferns to try in your garden.
The most widely available and used of our native ferns is sword fern (Polystichum munitum). Arching, dark-green, sabre-like leaves rise stiffly from a massive brown crown. A tangle of wandering roots explores the soil beneath, anchoring the clump firmly. A mature plant may grow to one metre wide and nearly as high. The impressive fronds can reach 1.5 metres long and up to 25 centimetres wide; the lower third consists of a scaly brown leaf stem called a stipe, while the upper two-thirds bear numerous pointed and toothed leaflets. Young, developing leaves are at first attractively curled like a shepherd’s crook or crosier.
In B.C., sword fern is a predominantly coastal species, though its range extends across the extreme southern portion of the province as well. It thrives mostly in the moist humus of conifer forests. Often you can see fern clumps covering the forest floor under a canopy of Western red cedar (Thuja plicata).
A robust plant, sword fern is among the easiest of all ferns to grow and has been used to serve many horticultural roles. Massive beds of ferns grace the grounds of public buildings such as those on the campus of the University of Victoria. Even in somewhat open sites, scattered clumps effectively hide building foundations. Sword fern is at its most lovely, however, in a woodland garden, where clumps may be placed as one might encounter them in the rainforest.
Sword ferns require little care. Most important is that the planting site remain relatively moist throughout the year. Unlike many ferns, sword fern need not be fully shaded. Mulch the ground with organic debris such as coarse compost, rotting leaves, conifer needles or peat. At the end of the growing season, cut out the dried fronds to keep the fern looking attractive, then chop them up and use for mulch.
In the spring, aboriginal British Columbians dug, cleaned and roasted or steamed the rhizomes (root-like structures consisting of root and stem tissue) in open fires or pits. Fronds were used to line boxes and baskets and to provide a decorative motif for basket designs.
The ferniest of our three ferns has to be the ubiquitous lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina), which grows in all but the driest and coldest parts of British Columbia.
Graceful yellow-green fronds rise to nearly 1.5 metres from a mass of brown leaf bases. The fronds are narrower at the base and tip. Unlike the sword fern and licorice fern, the lady fern’s many leaflets are divided yet again to present a soft, feather-like appearance. The tips of the fronds, especially young ones, have an interesting curve to them. Brown scales clothe the lower portion of the frond and numerous sporangia dot the backside of the leaves. Lady fern’s fronds die away in winter, leaving an untidy mass over the crown. For the gardener this may seem like an unnecessary mess to clean up, but the fronds protect the growing points, especially in harsher northern locations. In natural settings I would not remove old fronds at all, but in more formal settings they may be removed in the spring.
Wild colonies of lady fern thrive in moist, shaded sites such as forest glades, among shrub stems in thickets, in gullies and along stream banks. While ideally suited for the moist, shaded corner of the garden, it enjoys a bit of sun as well.
Like the sword fern, lady fern can spontaneously appear in a moist, shaded corner of your garden. Some folks consider lady fern a bit aggressive; you may need to rein in its expansion plans by digging out young crowns and passing them on to friends.
The ideal site for lady fern is a shaded woodland corner where it can tend to its expansionist desires and bring decades of beauty. It serves admirably against the north side of a house or building foundation and spreads on its own through its numerous spores. This fern is an outstanding subject for the pond or stream edge.
Lady fern fronds provide a beautiful setting on which to serve wild foods, such as berries or smoked salmon. First Nations people boiled or baked the early-spring fiddleheads.
The late fall and winter greenery of licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) is easy to spot. Graceful fronds 15 to 50 centimetres long cascade down shady rock faces and tree trunks. The fronds are deeply divided into narrow, slightly toothed and pointed lobes. The yellow-to-brown and crumbly spots on the leaf’s underside house the spore bags. Fronds grow from a stiff, knobby and clasping rhizome. Fine, black roots on the rhizome cling to tree trunks and rock faces, allowing the fern to thrive even with its roots covered by no more than a thin, mossy crust.
Licorice fern occurs all along the B.C. coast and inland up the Skeena and Fraser River valleys. Outside the province it occurs from Alaska to California. Tree trunks, especially those of big-leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), logs and rocks of old-growth forests are favourite haunts. Licorice fern also thrives on the moist side of exposed, mossy rocks on the east side of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. Little is seen of licorice fern during the dry interlude of summer and fall, but once the rains start, a fresh, bright-green mantle adorns once-dead rock faces and persists until late spring.
This excellent garden subject can be grown easily from spores collected in winter, then sprinkled upon the desired rocky surface or mossy trunk. Collect spores by clipping late-winter fronds and letting them dry with the bottom side of the frond on top of a sheet of paper. The spores will sift out onto the paper, which you can fold so that the powder-like spores slide into an envelope or film canister for later use. You can also get plants going from spores sown on moist, peaty soil in a pot. Cover the pot with glass or plastic until the fernlets appear. These may be carefully transplanted to the desired site. Licorice fern rhizome segments transplant readily as well. But please do not take rhizomes from the wild, where they maintain precious, thin soil cover on otherwise barren rocks.
As you might guess, the rhizome of licorice fern tastes strongly of licorice. For coastal B.C. First Nations people, this was their ‘sugar.’ Saanich peoples used the rhizome to sweeten medicines made of bitter barks. Other groups used it to treat colds and sore throats. Rhizomes were dried and nibbled all year long.
These three of our most common wild ferns are well worth including in your garden. Though they may not be colourful, their texture and gracefulness add a relaxing, verdant dimension to the garden, and their resilient constitution makes them reliable. All three are either available at or may be ordered through most garden centres.
An expert on native plants, Richard Hebda is curator of Botany and Earth History at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.