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Christmas Fern

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Friday, December 17, 2010

Most herbaceous plants go dormant with the cold temperatures prevalent this time of year. However, there are a number of winter hardy mosses and ferns that may catch your eye on a nature hike. One of the most common and easy to identify is the Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides).

Christmas ferns grow in colonies on shady, wooded slopes that are north- or east-facing, drain well, and have humus-rich soil. Colonies are often found at the bottoms of valleys along creeks. The plants typically grow to approximately 18 inches tall and wide with all of the fronds—large, compound leaves—emerging from a central crown. Fronds are lance-shaped and pinnate, with leaflets arranged on each side of a common stalk. Leaflets, called pinnae, are also lance-shaped, can be up to 2 inches long, and typically have a thumb-like lobe at the top. Towards the tip of fertile fronds, pinnae become smaller and are spore-bearing. Stems are covered with rust-colored scales.

I couldn’t find a definitive resource that stated exactly where the Christmas fern got its name. The most popular story involved early-American settlers. Because this plant was one of the few green things they could find during the Christmas season, the fronds were collected for wreaths and decorations. Other schools of thought suggest the thumb-shaped lobe on top of each leaflet resembles a mitten, a sleigh, or a stocking. Regardless, this evergreen fern is a pleasant sight against the gray woods on a cold, winter day. - See more at:

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