Polystichum munitum (Western Sword Fern): an Early Plant Crush

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The first plants I loved, were native plants. I say this without some of you knowing, I’ve never lived anywhere except in the Pacific Northwest in the Portland area. I love where I grew up and early on, many of my closest friends were the the ducks and crawdads that lived in the creek that flowed behind the family home in Milwaukie. We lived on an acre just outside of the city and I spent the majority of my time outdoors.

I believe I’ve written before about the native dogwood tree that we lost during an ice storm when I was a girl. I cried for the loss of its life. I’ve never said much about the cedar tree I build a little fort under, or spoken of the many ferns that were also on the property. They were the carpet of my childhood. (We had lawn too but my mom will tell you I disliked it from the start.)

Beside our property were two large vacant plots. During my entire childhood, I built trails on them, and as I routinely clipped back the blackberries, I slowly learned which plants were native and which were not. It’s funny to think about now. I’m not even sure how I learned except from books and from asking people. I learned the common names first, and then sometimes the Latin, but for the most part, I would sit in the woods and watch, and listen. I was a naturalist back then and didn’t even know it. No one ever encouraged me to do these things. If anything, I was discouraged and made fun of for it, but I instinctively lived much of my childhood in the dirt, grubbing around, largely outside of my Mom’s acre, but not entirely.

Sword ferns were always there. They were in the vacant lots, in Mom’s garden, they were near the rivers and streams, they’d be in gardens I saw (mixed in with more exotic plants), and each time I saw them, I knew them. The were the omnipresent plant of my childhood, but I never took them for granted. Their form, they just fit the place where I live.

Well, my first childhood job was to trim off the old fronds on my mom’s sword ferns in her garden. I used to know how many there were, but I can’t recall now. She paid me by the fern instead of hourly. (I’m just going to say that she complained I worked too slowly. She made fun of me for this, but guess who’s laughing now. She missed my horticultural inclination completely.)

It was paying me to do this that first opened my eyes to the thin line between nature/garden. It was just the realization that manipulating the plants changed their purpose. Yes, as a kid it felt strange to cut off all of the old fronds just to make them appear to “look better” when the new foliage grew out. I get it now. Now each year when I do it in my own garden (if I remember to do it) I think of mom and I laugh. Much of gardening is this total control that we wield and it lets folks think it’s somehow easy or “natural”. Yes, I guess it’s all about the illusion of our magic trick. To my mind, the best gardens use this trick to their advantage.

Today Evan sent me the pic above with myself and the giant Polystichum munitum we found just outside of Aberdeen, WA, so it reminded me to post the picture I took of him with another giant we found in the Fern Canyon in California. The maximum size of these plants is around 6 feet and these two are two of the largest that either of us have ever seen.

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6 thoughts on “Polystichum munitum (Western Sword Fern): an Early Plant Crush

  1. Evan Bean

    The second photo kinda makes me laugh because that sword fern was so thin, it almost disappears against the other plants in the photo, but it was taller than my head. Ah, I’ve always loved sword ferns.

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    • I think that one was taller than the one in WA though. These are both amazing plants. It shows how differently they can look. I think that one in CA was partially in the streambed too so it likely gets washed fairly well from time to time.

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  2. Growing up on the eastern side of Washington state I had a very different palette of plants around me. I do remember my mom’s attempt to grow sword ferns though. We’d vacation on the west side of the state (camping in natural areas) and what do you know, a few ferns would follow us home. She babied those things, but they never looked as good as the ones just growing on their own, where they wanted to be.

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  3. I’m always kind of surprised to discover how much people who grew up here love sword ferns too, given how ubiquitous they are (and how ratty they can sometimes look, even here on the wet side). They astounded me when we moved here, and I figured everyone who had grown up with them would be jaded by them. Great photos!

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    • As you know, Evan and I are jaded by MANY things, but the form and shape of these ferns still can be something magical for both of us. Luckily we have the same appreciation for lots of our other ferns too, but I think for me, this is the plant that really opened my eyes to the transition from the wild to the garden.

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