Even in the depth of winter there are dollops of green on the Northwest forest floor. Deer fern (Blechnum spicant) is one of those hardy evergreens. It’s smaller and less common than the ubiquitous sword fern (Polystichum munitum), which to my mind makes it more interesting and desirable for our garden. The photo above shows Deer Ferns in the moss garden at Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island.
Years ago I bought a deer fern at a nursery, brought it home, and planted it in our shade garden. I think it was just a little 4-inch pot. It’s been in the same spot, at the edge of our path ever since. We can enjoy it daily from our kitchen window.
Like all ferns, deer fern reproduces by spores. But it’s different from many ferns in that it has both sterile and fertile fronds. Only the fertile fronds bear spores. They’re stiff, have narrow pinnae (leaflets), and are held nearly vertical. The sterile fronds have wider pinnae and tend to arch from the base or lay flat on the ground.
Deer fern puts out new fronds each spring and then the previous year’s fronds die back. It usually maintains a neat and tidy appearance with very little care in our garden.
In the wild, I’ve seen large patches of deer fern in the moist, shady forests where it thrives but it rarely forms colonies as large as sword fern. It likes to get some sunlight each day but will also grow well in open shade. Give it a fairly rich, humusy soil and reasonable drainage.