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Polystichum munitum is often confused with:
Blechnum spicant Blechnum spicant
Plants that fill a similar niche:
Cyrtomium falcatum Cyrtomium falcatum
Salvia rosmarinus Rosmarinus officinalis
Smilax glabra Smilax glabra

Polystichum munitum

Previously known as:

  • Aspidium munitum
  • Polystichum munitum var. incisoserratum
Phonetic Spelling
po-LI-sti-kim mew-NEE-turn
Description

The sword fern is a broadleaf evergreen or semi-evergreen that has large, arching, dark green, erect fronds that are born from a crown of scaly rhizomes. The plant grows to a height of 3 to 4 feet tall and 2 to 4 feet wide. They may be in clumps of 75 to 100 fronds. The fronds are pinnately compound with alternate, pointed, sharp-toothed leaflets. Each leaflet is sword-like and has a small lobe that points forward at the base, like a saber.  There are sori or spore cases that are yellowish and arranged in rows on the undersides of the fronds.  In the early spring, young fronds or fiddleheads appear and begin to unroll. Each fern can grow to a length of 4 to 6 feet and survive for several years. A fern from the Pacific coast, it has earned the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit.

Sword fern is native to western North America from Alaska to Mexico. It is common in moist coniferous forests in the southern coastal regions of British Columbia. It is mostly a coastal species, but it is found inland in areas such as Idaho, Montana, and South Dakota. The genus name, Polystichum, is derived from two words, poly, meaning many, and stichos, meaning rows. This references the row of spores that occur on the undersides of the fronds. The epithet name, munitum, means "armed with teeth." and references the fronds. 

The sword fern prefers partial to full shade, moist, well-drained soils in humid conditions, It adapts to various soils but prefers acidic to slightly acidic conditions. The delicate fronds will burn if exposed to full sun. In the fall when the fronds begin to die off for the winter, they should not be removed. These fronds will protect the new growth that will occur in the spring. The sword fern is propagated by spores and rhizomes. Division should be done in the early spring. The rhizomes will survive through the winter when planted in the ground, but container plants should be moved indoors. It is also important to protect the crowns from excessive winter wetness. 

Sword fern maybe sometimes confused with deer fern. The sword fern has a small stem attached to each leaflet; whereas the deer fern's leaflets are attached to the stipe along their entire margin and their margins are not toothed. 

The sword fern could be considered for a shade garden, cottage garden, or woodland garden. It may also be used as a container or houseplant.

Seasons of Interest: 

Foliage:  Year-round in warmer climates

Quick ID Hints:

  • evergreen, up to 3 to 4 feet tall and 2 to 4 feet wide, clumps of up to 75 to 100 fronds
  • erect, arching fronds, pinnately compound, lance-shaped
  • fronds have many leaflets that are simple, alternate, finely serrated 
  • clusters of yellowish spores on the undersides of the leaflets
  • young fronds or fiddleheads appear in the spring and slowly unroll

Insects, Diseases, and Other Plant Problems:  Sword ferns are generally resistant to most insects and diseases. Monitor for aphids, mealybugs, fern mites, and nematodes. Browning of the tips of the leaves usually indicates a lack of water and humidity. Yellow and wilting leaves are usually the result of overwatering.

VIDEO created by Ryan Contreras for “Landscape Plant Materials I:  Deciduous Hardwoods and Conifers or Landscape Plant Materials II:  Spring Flowering Trees and Shrubs” a plant identification course offered by the Department of Horticulture at Oregon State University

Profile Video:
See this plant in the following landscape:
Garden "Bed"
Cultivars / Varieties:
Tags:
#houseplant#easy to grow#shade garden#broadleaf evergreen#fern#shelter for wildlife#low maintenance#easy to transplant#acidic soils tolerant#clumping#humidity tolerant#partial shade tolerant#non-toxic for horses#non-toxic for dogs#non-toxic for cats#woodland garden#container plant#perennial fern#erect#landscape plant sleuths course#wildlife friendly
 
Cultivars / Varieties:
Tags:
#houseplant#easy to grow#shade garden#broadleaf evergreen#fern#shelter for wildlife#low maintenance#easy to transplant#acidic soils tolerant#clumping#humidity tolerant#partial shade tolerant#non-toxic for horses#non-toxic for dogs#non-toxic for cats#woodland garden#container plant#perennial fern#erect#landscape plant sleuths course#wildlife friendly
  • Attributes:
    Genus:
    Polystichum
    Species:
    munitum
    Family:
    Polypodiaceae
    Uses (Ethnobotany):
    The sword fern was a food source for Native Americans. They ate the rhizomes by boiling, baking, or steaming. The fern was also used to treat skin sores, chewed for treating sore throats, make a poultice for burns, and treat dandruff. The fronds were also used to make mats for cleaning and drying fish or tied to make a mattress. It is now widely cultivated and used by florists in making floral arrangements
    Recommended Propagation Strategy:
    Division
    Country Or Region Of Origin:
    Western North America, Alaska, British Columbia to Mexico,
    Distribution:
    Native: United States--AK, CA, ID, MT, OR, SD, and WA; Canada--British Columbia; Mexico--Mexican Pacific Island, Mexico Northwest. Introduced: Belgium, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Netherlands, and the United States--PA.
    Wildlife Value:
    Elk, deer, beavers, mountain goats, and black bears eat the leaves or fronds. The Sword Fern is a nesting site for birds, deer, and small mammals. Black bears use the fronds for bedding.
    Play Value:
    Easy to Grow
    Wildlife Cover/Habitat
    Wildlife Food Source
    Wildlife Nesting
    Dimensions:
    Height: 3 ft. 0 in. - 4 ft. 0 in.
    Width: 2 ft. 0 in. - 4 ft. 0 in.
  • Whole Plant Traits:
    Plant Type:
    Fern
    Perennial
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Broadleaf Evergreen
    Habit/Form:
    Clumping
    Erect
    Maintenance:
    Low
  • Cultural Conditions:
    Light:
    Deep shade (Less than 2 hours to no direct sunlight)
    Partial Shade (Direct sunlight only part of the day, 2-6 hours)
    Soil Texture:
    Clay
    High Organic Matter
    Loam (Silt)
    Sand
    Soil pH:
    Acid (<6.0)
    Soil Drainage:
    Good Drainage
    Moist
    Available Space To Plant:
    3 feet-6 feet
    USDA Plant Hardiness Zone:
    5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b
  • Fruit:
    Fruit Description:
    No fruits. This plants reproduces via spores.
  • Flowers:
    Flower Description:
    No flowers.
  • Leaves:
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Broadleaf Evergreen
    Leaf Color:
    Green
    Leaf Feel:
    Glossy
    Leathery
    Leaf Value To Gardener:
    Good Cut
    Long-lasting
    Showy
    Leaf Type:
    Compound (Pinnately , Bipinnately, Palmately)
    Fronds
    Leaf Arrangement:
    Alternate
    Leaf Shape:
    Lanceolate
    Linear
    Leaf Margin:
    Serrate
    Hairs Present:
    No
    Leaf Length:
    > 6 inches
    Leaf Width:
    > 6 inches
    Leaf Description:
    The leaves are arching fronds that are pinnate, leathery, stiff, upright, dark green, and measure 1 to 4 feet long and 2 inches to 10 inches wide. The leaflets are alternate, pointed, and toothed with a medium texture. They appear sword-like. Each leaflet is attached by a small stem. The leaflets have spores on the undersides that are uniformly spaced in a single row on either side of the midrib and are light yellow.
  • Stem:
    Stem Is Aromatic:
    No
    Stem Description:
    The stems are erect.
  • Landscape:
    Landscape Location:
    Coastal
    Container
    Houseplants
    Meadow
    Woodland
    Landscape Theme:
    Cottage Garden
    Shade Garden
    Design Feature:
    Border
    Attracts:
    Small Mammals
    Songbirds