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What Time is it in Nature: Christmas Fern

January 17, 2014

Winter is a rather drab time in nature, a time when most plants have lost their leaves and the evergreens provide the bulk of the color across the landscape.  However, there are many plants that are active and green in winter if you know where to look!  One great plant that you can see at Prairie Ridge is the Christmas Fern, Polystichum acrostichoides.

Christmas fem

Christmas Ferns are evergreen ferns native to the eastern US, a relatively common fern species in most of its range.  The fronds grow quite large, up to three feet at maturity, and are made up of a center stalk with rows of leathery, deep green “leaves” (called pinnae) along either side.  Christmas Ferns typically grow in a clump, with several fronds growing out of a small patch of dirt.  Like other ferns, they reproduce via spores, not flowers.  During the summer reproductive period, small brown spore-containing structures called sori will appear along the underside of the upper third of the fronds and disperse the spores to new locations.  Spores that find themselves in the proper soil conditions will eventually grow into new plants.

Christmas Ferns are typically residents of wooded areas and grow well in deep shade, though they can be found in a variety of habitats with well-drained soils and partial to full shade.  Because they tolerate deer and rabbits and grow in a variety of soil types and conditions, Christmas Ferns are popular garden plants.  They can also grow well in shallow, rocky soils and on slopes, making them a great choice for erosion control.

Christmas Ferns likely got their common name based on one of two characteristics, and possibly both.  Because parts of the plant are green year-round, they are green at Christmas and are often used in Christmas decorations.  The pinnae along the frond stalks are also shaped like Christmas stockings:

Christmas fem

In case it doesn’t immediately pop out at you, the “heel” of the stocking sits right where the pinnae attach to the stalk, the “toe” points toward the tip of the frond, and the rest of the “sock” extends outward away from the stalk.

You can find Christmas Ferns in the wooded areas of Prairie Ridge, especially along the stream along the Forest Trail.  Just look for big, green ferns – they’re one of the only green things out right now, so you can’t miss them.  A stroll through the woods on your next visit will yield dozens of sightings, so come on out and get up close and personal with a Christmas Fern at Prairie Ridge!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation.  Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

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