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Share to PinterestHow to Care for the Western Sword Fern
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How to Care for the Western Sword Fern

By Staff Writer
Share to PinterestHow to Care for the Western Sword Fern

Western sword ferns grow on forest floors and rocky outcrops and don't need a lot of sunshine. This long-lived evergreen has upright, lush fronds with as many as 100 small leaves each. When fully grown, the fronds resemble swords and can reach six feet long in optimal conditions.

These plants do well outdoors and in, make a beautiful addition to humid bathrooms, and may remove airborne pollutants. They're also popular with florists who use them to add texture and a deep green shade to flower arrangements.


Your western sword fern’s new home

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If you're thinking of getting some western sword ferns online, plan to have them arrive between November and March. These are the best months for transplanting, and you'll save water. If you make a trip to the garden center, look for a proud and bright green specimen without dying leaves.


Planting your western sword fern

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So, you've got your hands on a trusty sword fern, and it's time to do the honors. Prepare well-draining, humus-rich soil with a pH of 6 to 6.5. Mix organic matter with loam or clay soil and peat moss for aeration.

Don't bury the crown, water thoroughly to help the plant settle, and mulch with wood chips to keep the mix moist.


A healthy start: sunlight requirements for western sword ferns

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Western sword ferns are canopy floor residents who enjoy the shade. Whether they spill the tea is another matter entirely. Full sun can scorch this plant and stunt its growth, but partial to full shade keeps it happy.

Indoors, you'll need medium to bright indirect light.


A healthy start: watering

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When you first plant a sword fern, water thoroughly to help it settle. Sword ferns like moisture, so if you live where wet weather is the norm, you won't have to do as much watering in the coming months.

Hotter, drier seasons and regions necessitate deep weekly waterings, and this includes any potted ferns inside your home. Misting and a humidifier can help too.


A healthy start: special nutrients

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As an understorey species, western sword ferns prefer nitrogen-rich soils with high levels of organic matter and a relatively high pH. Still, they're easygoing and don't require many fertilizer applications, and certainly not during fall and winter.

Use a balanced and diluted fertilizer during the growing season's warmer months and your fern will flourish.


USDA hardiness zone information

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Western sword ferns prefer cooler regions that receive significant rainfall. Think Edward Cullen and Twilight country in the Pacific Northwest. They're used to warm and humid summers.

USDA hardiness zones five to eight are best for these plants, but they can get by in zones three, four, and nine, too.


Healthy growth: pruning your western sword fern

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Timing your pruning just right ensures you'll see your ferns for the better part of the year. You'll notice your fern looking a little worse for wear in the fall.

Don't prune these dead-seeming fronds just yet, tempting as it may be. They're actually a haven for new growth. You can go ahead and cut back in early spring, steering clear of the furled fiddleheads closer to the soil.


Preparing for winter

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Sword ferns retain their foliage during the colder months. They're resilient, and even when they look down and out after heavy snowfall, they can bounce back with some early spring cutting-back and TLC.

Your sword ferns in containers and planters will need to be taken inside for the winter or the rhizomes will freeze.


Can I propagate my western sword fern?

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Sword ferns aren't flowering plants, so they don't have seeds. They do, however, have spores on the bottoms of their leaves. You can shake the frond of a sword fern that's at least a year old, collect the spores in a paper bag, and germinate quickly.

Sword ferns with large rhizomes and developed roots can be easily propagated. Divide the clump using a sharp, sanitized knife, replant the portions in desired spots, and water well after transplanting and in the following weeks.


Common diseases

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Sword ferns are relatively problem-free plant, but they can develop brown leaf spots or blisters, and various fungi can infiltrate. Rust is also an issue. Water molds can cause root rot due to excessive soil moisture, which can lead to death.

Treat leaf spot by removing affected leaves and using a fungicide. Avoid sprinkler irrigation, employ sound drainage practices, and sanitize previously used pots before propagation.


Common pests

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Aphids, fern mites, and mealybugs can suck on the sap of your fern's leaves. Nematodes can wreak havoc on roots, leading to stunting and wilting — remove any affected leaves and repot.

Microscopic scale causes dieback. Quarantine your fern if possible, remove visible pests such as snails, and make a rubbing alcohol solution with 90% water to spray on the plant.


Showing off your western sword fern

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Prehistoric western sword ferns add a classic touch to your modern shade gardens and are anything but boring. They're elegant, and after you prune and neaten them once a year, they thrive on neglect.

These ferns form the perfect backdrop for ground cover, add color and structure during winter, and work well on stone walls, too. They pair nicely with moss in Asian gardens, and you can pop them in tall planters to frame your entrance for an elegant aesthetic.


Similar plants

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Western sword ferns are often mistaken for Boston ferns (Nephrolepis exaltata), but the latter has fronds that curve downwards. You might assume that ferns aren't water-wise, but they do well in drought-tolerant gardens.

If you want a slightly different aesthetic, try coffee ferns (Pellaea andromedifolia). These California natives have fleshier foliage that's oval-shaped or rounded.


Cautions and additional information

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Western sword ferns are not toxic and shouldn't harm your precious fur babies. In fact, the spore side of this fern may be topically applied to stinging nettle rashes. You can also eat the roots raw in salads.

Steam, boil, or peel and roast the rhizomes just like some Native Americans used to in spring when other foods were in short supply. It was a starvation food, so if you're not in the middle of a famine, there are safer plant-based meals to explore. The curious should keep their sampling small just in case toxins are present.


Varieties of western sword fern

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There are thousands of kinds of ferns, but only one Polystichum munitum. The sword fern is well-known and pretty widespread in the woodlands and wetlands of the western parts of North America.

It also goes by the names Christmas fern, sword holly fern, giant holly fern, Chamisso's shield fern, and pineland sword fern.



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