Plant Profiles Sword Fern

The western sword fern, or the Polystichum munitum, is considered to be the king of all the northwest ferns. This fern does well in almost any conditions, but will thrive in certain specific ones. It will fit in with most plantings around the home garden.

The sword fern grows in clumps and the leaves appear in a vertical pattern, which allows it to be an attention getter. This plant also does well as a ground cover or in mass planting by themselves or with other ferns.

When the older fronds on the sword fern die, they can be left on the plant or trimmed off. If allowed to remain on the plant, small amphibians may make their homes around the base of the plant.

The sword fern can grow up to five feet tall and four feet wide. Its evergreen leaves are narrow, dark green fronds which are lance-like in shape. On the underside of the fronds there are spore cases. These spores will begin as green casings then change their color to an orange-brown as the time for releasing the spores come closer. The spores will be released in late summer.

This fern prefers partial shade to shady conditions. The sword fern also thrives when placed in soil that is rich with humus. It also does well if the soil is kept moist, although it can survive for a few weeks in drought conditions.

As this plant grows, it will need to be divided once in a while. This should be done in the spring. As far as pruning, this does not need to be done except for trimming off the dead fronds.

Indigenous people from the northwest used these plants in various ways. The fronds could be used to cover a cooking pit, to fill a mattress or they could be used as a surface to dry berries on. The berries would not stick to these fronds, unlike other leaves that may have been used. The sword fern rhizome could be boiled or cooked in a pit oven to be used as food. Then,  for sore throats, the young unfurled leaves can be chewed. These leaves have also been used by these people for sores and boils. When women were having difficulties in childbirth, the people from the northwest would use the sword fern to help the childbirth to progress. Hair could be washed with boiled roots as a treatment for dandruff.

Even though this plant has done well along the Pacific coast, in southeast British Columbia, northern Idaho and western Montana, it has not been able to thrive further east.