What is a Sword Fern?

Jacob Queen

Sword ferns, which are known by the scientific name polystichum munitum, are found all over North America, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. They are distinguished by their large size, and very long, dark green fronds. They are one of the larger varieties of fern, sometimes growing to a height of 4 feet (121.92 cm), and a width of 7 feet (213.36 cm). Due to their size and deep color, sword ferns are often used by florist as backgrounds for flower arrangements. The plants are usually very easy to grow, they can typically tolerate many different types of soil and growing conditions.

Sword fern is used as a remedy to help relieve sore throats.
Sword fern is used as a remedy to help relieve sore throats.

A mature sword fern can produce as many as 100 fronds and may live for many years. Considered one of the hardiest of plants, the sword fern requires little if any care. They tend to prefer moist soil and a slightly elevated humidity, but they can survive quite well without them. When transplanting new seedlings, it is considered a good idea for individuals to keep them in a moist environment with partial light until they have established a strong root system. Older plants can then be moved to shade or partial shade and then basically ignored.

There are no known insects or diseases that pose any real threat to the sword fern. They are resistant to pest and fungus that often destroy other more fragile ferns. In addition to being extremely hardy, the sword fern spreads so easily that many landscapers consider them to be little more than pests. Once the sword fern takes hold in a garden, it can completely overwhelm other nearby plants.

The best place to plant sword ferns is in an outdoor garden, using it as a border or ground cover. They can be planted directly into the ground or grown in large pots or hanging baskets. Though these are considered forest plants, their vigorous nature makes them ideal for growing in city townhouses or apartments, where there may not be a great deal of natural light available.

Historically, Native Americans found many uses for the sword fern. They commonly used it for a variety of medicinal purposes, including relieving sore throat and diarrhea. During childbirth, women were given fronds to chew because it was thought that the fern expedited the delivery process. The fronds of the plant were also used to make beds and flooring. During times when food became scarce, it is believed that many tribes cooked and ate the roots and stalks.

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