Reflect with me on one of the most common plants found in the Pacific Northwest, the Western Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum). This plant grows in abundance in the western regions of North America, especially as understory in coniferous forests. Something as common as the Sword Fern can easily be overlooked. What then is so unique about the Sword Fern?
Tough and Adaptable: Sword Ferns are found as far north as southeast Alaska and as far south as southern California. This plant has found a way to adapt and survive in very warm and very cold environments. Though Sword Ferns prefer wet, temperate conditions, growing best in rich, organic soils, they also survive in eco-systems with little moisture, and can live through intense dry periods. For gardeners, they are great for low maintenance landscaping. Sword Ferns are also very disease and pest resistant. Well-designed for reproduction, this plant repopulates through rows of reddish spores, or sori, found on the undersides of every frond. A single spore develops into a new organism through asexual reproduction. Sword Fern rootstock, a rhizome, anchors the plant into the soil by means of a hairy root-system through which it gathers moisture and minerals. Part of the tough quality of the Sword Fern may be seen in the reddish-brown scales covering and protecting the rhizome.
Balance and Beauty: The Sword Fern has found its way into millions of backyards across western North America, often without any work or cultivation on the part of the gardener. Along the moist, shaded north side of our home on the OregonCoast, Sword Ferns planted themselves. As the native plant guide for KingCountydeclares, “This is the king of northwest ferns. Its stately appearance and adaptability for almost any site condition, make it one of the most useful of all native plants.” (1) The fronds, which can grow to six feet in length, reveal a repeating pattern of serrated leaflets, or pinnae, with each leaflet a miniature pattern of the overall frond. From base to tip, leaflets also gradually tapers, forming the pattern of a sword. Evergreen in color, this plant provides year round color to forest and backyard, as well as an eye-pleasing symmetry and harmony. Though seldom used for any other purpose today than landscaping, the Sword Fern has had a long history among native populations, providing bedding, medicinal uses, cooking uses, and even eaten as food.
The Pathway to Silence: Finally, I invite you to consider the Sword Fern as guardians of the forest along the pathways to silence. Though found ubiquitously among many noisy neighborhoods and highways along the western states and provinces, the Sword Fern is also found in the quietest places of tranquility. Gordon Hempton, a sound recordist who has been recording silent places of North America for years, noticed the encroachment of human noise upon natural sanctuaries such as our national parks. His book, One Square Inch of Silence (Free Press, 2009), articulates his passion for preserving the gift of silence in natural spaces such as Olympic National Park. Surrounding Hempton’s “one square inch of silence” in the Hoh Valley of Olympic National Park, you’ll be sure to find a whole regiment of Sword Ferns standing guard over the gift of solitude and silence.