How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Christmas Ferns

Are you looking to add a festive native evergreen to your garden? Opt for Christmas fern for a fountain of green fronds year-round. Christmas fern is striking as an accent, border, or mass planting and also pairs beautifully with other shade-loving perennials. Add lushness to the winter garden with native Christmas ferns. Join garden professional Katherine Rowe in exploring the benefits and growing how-tos for this sturdy native wood fern.

A close-up of a cluster of green Christmas fern fronds. Numerous tiny, sawtooth-edged leaflets that make up the fronds are unfolding from a central stem. The frond is beautifully curved throughout, and the leaflets are arranged in a pattern resembling feathers.

Contents

Christmas ferns bring a fountain of green to the garden throughout the year. It’s particularly striking in the winter garden, when green fronds lend a lush look to the landscape, especially when many other perennials are dormant.

Native to the U.S. and Canada, these ferns are hardy, adaptable, and serve a variety of landscape uses. They beautify the shade garden, provide wildlife habitat, and help stabilize the soil on slopes to prevent erosion.

Christmas ferns have a long history in the landscape and are long-lived perennials. They will grace the garden for many years once established. Spores will loosen and jump from the fronds in early fall, with a small percentage reseeding. Otherwise, they can be propagated through division and are readily available from the nursery trade.

Polystichum acrostichoides’ Plant Overview

A close-up of unfurling Christmas fern fronds in the springtime, with delicate leaflets that resemble feathers. Dried brown leaves from the previous season provide a contrasting backdrop to the new growth, creating a sense of freshness and vitality.
Plant Type Broadleaf evergreen/native plant/fern
Family Dryopteridaceae
Genus Polystichum
Species acrostichoides
Native Area Eastern Canada to Mexico
Exposure Part shade to shade; dappled light
Height 1’-3’
Watering Requirements Medium
Pests & Diseases None
Maintenance Low
Soil Type Neutral, Acidic
Hardiness Zone 3-9

What Is Christmas Fern?

Christmas ferns growing in a forest in spring. The ferns have several bright green fronds that unfurl from a central crown. They are growing in a moist, shady spot on the forest floor, surrounded by other ferns and wildflowers.
This evergreen woodland plant provides year-round ground cover.

This highly adaptable, low-maintenance wood fern provides a lush ground cover year-round. This striking broadleaf evergreen has coarse, thick fronds that persist in winter (and are green at Christmastime, hence the name). Leaflets loosely resemble Christmas stockings, and early settlers used fronds as holiday decorations.

It’s also valued for medicinal uses when plant parts are brewed as tea. According to the Native American Ethnobotany Database, early North American indigenous people used Christmas fern to treat stomach ailments, fever, rheumatism, and pneumonia. Roots and tender fiddleheads, when cooked, were eaten for treatments. However, be cautious and avoid consuming any parts of the fern before checking with your doctor. It may cause stomach upset and other symptoms.

This plant is multifunctional in the landscape. It offers visual appeal to add to the woodland garden aesthetic. It also provides cover at the ground level for songbirds and other wildlife and is a source of food and nesting materials. In addition to beauty and habitat, the fern can help to stabilize slopes from soil erosion when planted en masse. Further, as fronds fall and decay, they enrich the surrounding soil.

Characteristics

A crown of Christmas ferns in top view with several dried leaves beneath them. The deep green ferns have delicate, feathery fronds that unfurl from a central crown. Some of the leaves are partially covering the ferns, while others are scattered around the base of the plant.
Fertile fronds produce black spores and grow in controlled clumps without widespread colonization.

Dark green, highly polished fronds have many leaflets and form a fountainlike display of ferny greens. Fronds average two feet long by two to four inches wide, and these coarse, leathery fronds last through winter. In spring, curled, silvery fiddleheads emerge. These unfurl into fresh, new leaves for the coming seasons.

Fronds produce black spores on the underside of leaves between June and September. Not all fronds are fertile; fertile fronds tend to be longer, narrower, and more upright. They also die back at the end of the growing season, while infertile fronds persist.

They don’t naturalize or colonize the way many other ferns do. Instead, they grow in clumps of two to three plants that expand in size over time. This controlled growth allows the gardener to select specific spots for the fern, plant as many as needed, and reliably know the fern’s spread.

Native Area

A close-up of a captivating Christmas fern leaf in lush greenery. The long, slender leaf is divided into many smaller leaflets, each with a serrated edge. The leaflets are a deep green color with a silvery sheen, and they are arranged in a graceful, feathery pattern.
This perennial thrives in cool, shady Eastern US gardens, woodlands, and swamps.

Christmas ferns originate in the Eastern United States and range from Mexico to Eastern Canada. They’re classified as native to the lower 48 United States and Canada. They prefer cool, shady garden locations and naturally occur in rich, organic areas like woodlands, streambanks, rocky embankments, swamps, and thickets.

Planting

A close-up of spring home gardening in progress. A pot of healthy soil sits on a table, with a mini garden shovel and rake leaning against it. In the background, a fern thrives in its pot.
Ideal for cottage and woodland gardens, it pairs well with astilbe, heuchera, and tiarella.

Its adaptability and evergreen qualities make it a fern to feature in your landscape. Its arching, clumping habit gives a soft look to the understory garden. It’s a fitting specimen for cottage, woodland, and shade gardens and intermingled with other native plantings. It makes a pretty border, accent, or mass planting.

Combine with other shade-loving perennials like astilbe, heuchera, and tiarella. These enjoy the same cultural conditions of soil types and canopy/shade cover. Columbine, toad lily, bleeding heart, and wild geranium also bring colorful additions to the evergreen spray of the fern understory.

Christmas fern is low maintenance once established. It can also be grown in containers and indoors.

Transplanting

A lush green fern hangs outdoors in an orange pot. The fern's fronds cascade over the sides of the pot, creating a voluminous and inviting display. The orange pot adds a pop of color to the scene and complements the fern's vibrant greenery.
Ensure the fern crown is slightly above soil level for optimal growth.

It’s best to plant in the fall before frost or in the spring after the threat of final frost has passed. New plants will benefit from this time to get established before winter and summer temperatures.

Plant these perennials 18” apart to allow for mature size. This spacing creates a full look but won’t get overcrowded. Take care to place the fern crown just above the soil level. Planting a little high ensures it won’t settle beneath the soil, where it may be subject to crown rot during wet seasons.

With the right location, clumps will continue expanding. They can be divided to create new plantings.

In containers, these ferns do not often need repotting. Bump them up to a larger container (at least one inch larger in diameter) every two years or so. Moist and well-drained potting mix is best in containers,

Growing from Seed

A close-up of a fern leaf reveals the tiny green spores on its underside. Spores are arranged in clusters called sori, which are visible as small brown dots. The delicate fronds of the fern are fern-like, with a feathery appearance.
Ambitious gardeners collect fern spores in October for propagation.

The ambitious gardener can collect spores to create seedlings. It can be met with mixed success rates and requires patience during germination.

To collect spores, wait until October when they begin to drop from the undersides of the leaflets. Place cardboard under the fronds to collect the fallen spores, or clip fertile fronds and place them on paper to catch the spores.

Then, scatter the spores onto a tray of soil medium and cover them lightly. Keep soil moist and await germination – seeds can take up to three months to germinate.

How to Grow

In the right location, growing Christmas ferns is easy! Given dappled light and well-drained soil, they will thrive with little care.

As houseplants, they will need a little more care (as many houseplants do) than those in the landscape. Keep them away from direct sunlight and provide moisture in soil and humidity in their immediate environment.

Light

A close-up of a Christmas fern leaf captures the intricate beauty of the plant. Delicate fronds are bathed in sunlight, highlighting their lush green color and delicate veins. The blurry background creates a sense of depth and emphasizes the fern as the focal point of the image.
They thrive in part to full shade and prefer dappled light.

Christmas ferns thrive in part shade to shade garden locations. They prefer dappled light beneath a tree canopy but can tolerate deep shade. The ferns can grow in full sun in cooler climates if the soil remains moist but may burn in sunny southeastern US conditions.

Indoors, they prefer bright, indirect light. Place them near a window but out of direct sunlight.

Water

A close-up of a lush green fern leaf with sparkling water droplets. The finely divided leaflets are each serrated around the edge. Water droplets are scattered across the leaf surface, catching the light and reflecting it back in a dazzling display of colors.
Newly planted ferns prefer moist soil, becoming drought-tolerant once established.

When newly planted, ensure soil is moist but not wet, erring on the dry side between waterings, whether in-ground or in a container. Once established, they need little additional water.

Soil

A close-up of sandy loam soil shows clumps of light brown soil with a variety of textures and sizes, ranging from fine sand to small pebbles. Some clumps are smooth and rounded, while others are more angular and irregular.
To safeguard against root and crown rot, ensure a well-drained environment for optimal plant health.

Christmas fern requires organically rich soils that are dry to medium in moisture. Soils must be well-drained so the roots and crown don’t get waterlogged and become susceptible to rot.

Highly adaptable, these ferns tolerate a range of soil types, from sandy to shallow and rocky, with a pH of neutral to acidic. Clay soils can negatively impact plants by holding water.

Temperature and Humidity

A close-up shows bright green emerging fronds of a Christmas fern growing on a forest floor. The unfurling fronds are curled tightly at the tips, resembling fiddleheads. Their new growth is a vibrant shade of green, contrasting with the deep brown leaf litter and mossy ground below.
Elevate humidity by misting or placing the plant in a tray with water and pebbles for indoor cultivation.

Christmas ferns perform best in cool, moist, shady environments. Ideal growing temperatures are between 50-70 degrees, though they are hardy in frosty and snowy conditions.

When growing indoors, keep plants in a humid environment (like a bathroom with a steamy shower). If humidity is low, mist the leaves or set the plant in a tray of pebbles and water.

Fertilizing

A close-up of a pile of organic fertilizer on a blue plastic crate. The fertilizer is made up of mostly dry leaves and twigs, with some smaller pieces of bark and other organic matter mixed in. The leaves are all different colors, from yellow and orange to brown and green.
These native ferns thrive with minimal fertilization but can benefit from a light application of acid-loving plant fertilizer in spring.

As native ferns, they require little to no fertilizing. In spring, for ferns in containers or to boost the garden, you may opt for a fertilizer that meets the needs of other acid-loving plants like hydrangea, azalea, and camellia.

Maintenance

A close-up of a Christmas fern's glossy, elongated leaves gracefully unfurl in a mesmerizing spiral pattern, adorned with tiny, sharp teeth that impart a hint of wild beauty. Flourishing in cool, moist surroundings, this evergreen thrives amidst the gentle whispers of the forest, embodying elegance in its natural habitat.
The low-maintenance plant grows effortlessly in the landscape, requiring minimal pruning.

The easy-care Christmas fern is happy to grow without fuss. It needs no pruning or cutback unless you want to remove yellowing, brown, or damaged fronds to improve the look of the plant. Remove spent fronds at any time of the year.

They can benefit from a light leafy cover during winter. Mulch or use leaf litter (or leave naturally falling leaves in place) to provide insulation.

Propagation

Division is the recommended propagation method and is the easiest way to expand your collection (other than purchasing nursery stock). Dividing ferns is most successful in spring, creating the least stress on newly divided plants and giving them time to get established in the active growing season.

Division

A close-up of a clump of green ferns with long, slender fronds that are divided into smaller leaflets. The leaflets are a deep green color and have a slightly glossy sheen. They are arranged in a circular pattern, with the youngest fronds in the center.
Fern clumps are divided in spring, cutting the crown into segments.

Divide fern clumps in spring by selecting single plants and cutting the crown into pieces. Dig up the plant and use a sharp blade to cut the crown into segments, roots and all. Four segments, or new young plants, are a good number from a single plant. If plants are small, only divide them in half to ensure you have healthy divisions.

Plant the new segments (18” apart) and keep them moist until established. Remember to plant the crown segment slightly above the soil level.

Common Problems

In addition to its beauty as a garden plant, a bonus of the Christmas fern is its carefree nature. It is relatively immune to pests and diseases. It is deer, rabbit, and squirrel resistant, tolerates heavy shade, and is fire resistant.

While it is deer-resistant, this isn’t to say it is deer-proof. When little else is available, deer may browse on ferns in lean times. Seldom are they significantly damaged, however.

Pests

A close-up of a long-tailed mealybug on a fern frond. The mealybug has a small, soft body that is covered in a waxy powder and has two long, white tails. It is sitting on the underside of the fern frond and feeding on its sap.
You may face occasional insect issues like aphids and mealybugs.

Insect infestation from aphids and mealybugs can occasionally bother these plants. For outdoor growers, spray the plant with water occasionally during warm months to deter and knock insects off the stems. A simple horticultural soap can rid the plant of aphids and mealybugs if infestation occurs. 

Diseases

This close-up shows a Christmas fern in a garden setting. The fern has glossy, dark green fronds that are divided into many small leaflets arranged in an alternate pattern along the central stem of the frond. The background appears to be a shady garden with other plants and trees visible.
Optimal performance is achieved in dry to medium soils, minimizing the risk of crown rot.

Christmas fern doesn’t tolerate wet feet or prolonged soggy conditions, especially during winter. It can develop crown and root rot in non-draining soils. 

The best control is prevention through cultural conditions.  Since it handles dry to medium soils best, look for spots that meet these conditions for best performance, and crown rot will be a non-issue.

In containers, make sure not to overwater for the same reason. Keeping soils evenly moist and erring on the dry side will mimic natural conditions.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Christmas ferns evergreen?

Yes – They are cold hardy, evergreen perennials. Long, leathery fronds persist in winter, when many other ferns and woodland plants are dormant.

Does Christmas fern spread?

They do not readily spread or naturalize like other fern colonies. They grow in clumps that expand in size over time, and produce spores that drop in early fall and can also be easily divided.

Are Christmas fern fiddleheads edible?

Humans should not consume Christmas fern fiddleheads – at least not without researching the “how-to’s.” The fiddleheads are technically edible after cooking but can cause side effects like dizziness and nausea. Indigenous North Americans historically used it in teas and root forms for medicinal purposes. Wildlife, like Ruffed Grouse and wild turkeys, may browse on the fiddleheads for nutritional forage.

Final Thoughts

These are worthwhile, easy native ferns to grow and provide striking form and color throughout the year. A long-lived perennial, Christmas fern grows in clumps that make lovely specimens, borders, and accent plantings. Use them in mass for soil stabilization in a dappled shade spot that needs erosion control. With well-drained soils, they require little care in the landscape.

Plant shade-loving perennials, native plants, bulbs, and spring ephemerals alongside them. Trillium and Virginia bluebells offer beautiful blooms among the ferns in early spring, and the fronds provide cover when bulbs are dormant.

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