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


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.


Wordless Wednesday: Woodland Dreamer in the City

Himalayan Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum venustum) and Primrose ‘Gold Lace’ (Primula x polyantha ‘Gold Lace’).
Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum).
Dutchman’s Breeches, (Dicentra cucullaria).
Primrose ‘Sunset Shades’, (Primula veris ‘Sunset Shades’).
White Inside-Out Flower, (Vancouveria hexandra).
And because this is Oregon, we just have ferns pop up randomly…