(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 18, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments. We hope you enjoy it as we count down to Christmas.)

Once collected as a major cut foliage item for Christmas sales, the Christmas fern may have derived its common name from the belief that the earliest settlers in North America gathered this fern for their own Christmas decorations.

The name, “Christmas Fern”, was reportedly given to the plant by John Robinson of Salem, Massachusetts. However, I was unable to find any mention of this in his 1878 publication, "Ferns in Their Home and Ours."[2]

A more imaginative belief is because the pinnae (individual leaflets) resemble a boot or stocking, and in keeping with the holiday spirit, Santa's boot or a Christmas stocking.

It is one of the few native evergreen ferns that can be found in much of the U.S., with its distinctive glossy green fronds still on display in the landscape throughout the holiday season. If you’re privileged to have this fern growing in your gardens or somewhere on your property, collecting a few fronds to include in your holiday decorations won’t harm the plant since the older fronds will be replaced with fresh new fronds in spring.

Courtesy of claypa

Decorating with a few fronds for your holiday arrangements!

Create an attractive centerpiece using the fern fronds as a base for a crystal bowl filled with pine cones, red berries, or colored ornaments.

Fern fronds are excellent used as trimmings for sprigs of Winterberry or the spectacular glossy foliage of Holly.The fronds can easily be inserted in evergreen wreaths or garlands. Give your creations an individual touch and add some brilliant cuttings from your own garden. Image

Martha Stewart often uses fern fronds in her creations. The "decorating diva" designed an elegant centerpiece combining "graceful ferns" with Hydrangea and white Lilac flowers in this Fern Centerpiece.[3]

Another fun and entertaining project for children (again from Martha Stewart), is using the tips of fern fronds to imitate a Christmas tree. Attach them to colorful paper with glue and add your own “ornaments” for cards or gift tags. See her fern tree decoration. here.[4]

A notion shared by some is that yuletide trimmings with evergreens were thought to discourage sickness and evil spirits. For me, I merely enjoy using them for the wonderful scent of some evergreens, and plan to add a few Christmas Fern fronds for another touch of nature. With the holiday season approaching, isn’t it time for you to consider growing Christmas Ferns in your garden? Soon, you’ll have an your own fresh supply of these lovely fronds to enjoy in your holiday decorations!

Growing Christmas Ferns

Polystichum acrostichoides
(Polystichum = Greek for many (poly) rows (stichos)

Family: Dryopteridaceae
Common Names: Christmas Fern or Dagger Fern
Hardiness: Zone 3 to 9
Courtesy of music2keep

Perhaps the most popular native fern, Christmas Fern is normally found growing in the moist woodlands of eastern North America.

Christmas Fern thrives in cool, deep shade but will tolerate some sun if given adequate moisture. Although Christmas Fern is not a vigorous fern when grown in West Coast gardens, in most of North America it readily adapts to most garden soils. It can even be grown in poor, rocky or heavy, clay soils. It is one of the most drought tolerant ferns, with shallow roots that compete successfully with tree roots. A valued groundcover, Christmas Fern is often used to combat soil erosion on dry slopes.

The graceful arching fronds of Christmas fern have a stiffer, more erect habit than many ferns with a more delicate, lacy appearance. Growing to about 18-24 inches tall and wide, the fronds emerge from a central crown covered with fuzzy brown scales and gradually begin drooping over the winter months. In spring, the young silvery-white fiddleheads (crosiers) emerge from the crown creating a dramatic contrast with the dark green of the old fronds.



Like all ferns, Christmas ferns reproduce by spores (sori) found on the undersides of the fronds.

However, unlike most ferns in the Polystichum genus, Christmas Fern has numerous smaller crowns surrounding the central crown which are easily divided as a method for effortless propagation, preferably in early spring. No known pests or diseases, the only shortcoming of Christmas Fern is the tendency for the old fronds to look a little shabby in spring before the new fronds emerge. A beneficial trimming in early spring to remove the older fronds quickly solves the untidy appearance without any damage to the plant.


Courtesy of claypa

When performing any spring clean up in the garden, avoid using a metal rake in the area where Christmas Ferns are planted as the fiddleheads are easily damaged when they emerge from the crown.

Excellent companions for Christmas Ferns in the shade garden include Astilbe, Brunnera, Heuchera, Heucherella, Hosta, Pulmonaria and Tiarella.

I highly recommend including Christmas ferns in your landscape. However, please don't dig these ferns from the woods! Too many of our native plant populations have become decimated because of the inexcusable collecting of these plants from the wild. There are plenty of reputable nurseries available who offer this fern for sale, many of whom can be found right here at Dave's Garden PlantScout.

Thank you to the following for permission to use their photos:

#1 plantmover

# 2, # 7 claypa

# 4 music2keep

# 5 U.S. Department of Agriculture

# 6 Shy Valley Farm Photo taken by Christine Shivell in a woodland garden in East Tennessee.


[1] Tilton, George Henry. The Fern Lover’s Companion. Kessinger Publishing (June 30, 2004)
[2] Robinson, John. Ferns in Their Home and Ours. S.E. Cassino, 1878
[3], [4]