The Amazing Sword Fern

The Amazing Sword Fern

by Brian Bodenbach

One day in the early 1990s, I was checking out a recently completed stream restoration with a fisheries biologist who had participated in the project. At the time, large-scale restoration projects were just becoming common in our region. He asked for my opinion on which native understory plant is best for erosion and runoff control.

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“On a watershed scale–hands down–the Sword Fern!” I emphatically replied. He looked a bit perplexed. I think that he expected me to name any of a number of deciduous shrubs–Red-osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea), Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilus) , Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), etcetera–that had quickly become popular among restoration designers. Deciduous shrubs like these made up the majority (and often still do) of plantings in restoration projects. On one hand, this makes sense; many of these native shrubs grow and establish quickly, and some spread to form dense thickets. This has big advantages in the short term as a large area can quickly become re-vegetated. But in the long run I think this actually becomes detrimental to the goal of many restoration projects: bringing the land back to being a coniferous-dominated forest–one of the planet’s most biologically rich landscapes. And in our region, beneath that canopy of big conifer trees –Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata)–there is often a shrub and groundcover layer built on a foundation of Sword Fern.

As in many design fields, Landscape Design observes a rule of thumb: Form Follows Function. Whether I am designing/installing a backyard landscape or large restoration project, or maintaining an existing landscape, the same questions always come to mind: How can I take the water falling from the sky and the building downspouts and a) use it to nourish the plants and b) put the rest into the ground to slowly feed into the local stream and benefit the salmon? How to maximize the habitat potential of a little corner of a small yard to provide cover and food for birds, pollinators and other wildlife? How to delineate a large restoration area into zones: one for wildlife that prefer deep forest, one for open-land dwellers, and additional zones for streamside and wetland areas? And how to accomplish all this in a way that feels natural and looks beautiful? Anchoring all of this is my personal palette of plants that serve multiple functions to meet those objectives. Front and center on that palette is the Sword Fern.

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Why is the Sword Fern so important? For starters, the Sword Fern is evergreen; it retains its foliage year-round. This is a big deal. In a part of the country where eighty percent of annual precipitation comes in the form of rain falling during the “winter months”—from October into May, having evergreen foliage means there is something to break the force of rain before it hits the ground. Especially when one looks at an entire hillside covered with Sword Ferns, it’s easy to see that this goes a long way towards preventing erosion and controlling runoff. Also, the foliage of evergreen plants tends to take longer to decompose. I have read that Sword Ferns fronds can take up to seven years to totally decompose (although my own observations around greater Seattle seem more like three or four). Contrast this with deciduous plants, the ground under which can go from a layer of leaves in fall to almost bare dirt by the end of the following summer. Again, big implications for erosion and runoff.

Sword Fern creates habitat. The buildup of fronds in varying stages of decay forms a ‘skirt’ around its base which creates cover for wildlife. I find more amphibians (frogs, salamanders etc.) hunkered down in the dense duff surrounding Sword Ferns than anywhere else. State biologist Marc Hayes tells me there is a correlation between the presence of native amphibians in Sword Fern duff (e.g. the Northern Red-legged Frog, in steep decline around here) and mollusks (slugs and snails), some of their favorite food. I suspect this dense duff also helps with thermoregulation (the ability to avoid the extremes of winter cold and summer heat).

And those roots! Sword Fern roots grow into a dense fibrous mass that can extend down as deep as two feet. This root mass does a great job of locking up the critical life-giving humus/high organic soil layer that feeds the landscape and to which the Sword Fern contributes with its accumulation of slowly decomposing fronds. The so-called “gardeners gold” in my world. Early in my landscape career, when given the opportunity to rescue Sword Ferns from an impending development site, I would always try to get as large a root ball as possible when digging mature plants from the ground to lessen transplant shock. This sometimes meant muscling 150-pound plants out of the ground and into the truck. And I knew that I hadn’t even gotten the entire root ball. It didn’t take long for my body to let me know this wasn’t that great an idea! From a business perspective, the amount of time and effort it took convinced that young knuckle-headed landscaper that purchasing nursery-grown potted ferns was the better way to go.

Early this year, Shirley and I attended a Native Plant Society meeting on a mysterious Sword Fern die-off* that has been noticed in several areas including Seward Park in Seattle. One of the things we learned is that there is some evidence that Sword Ferns can have a very long lifespan; one fern expert said they may live as long as 1,000 years! I was not surprised to hear this. I believe this is true of many understory plants in a stable, forested landscape. The die-offs are something that really concern me since I recognized long ago the critical role this one plant species plays in maintaining a healthy coastal northwest ecosystem. The cause of the die-offs has not been discovered, but some think climate change may play a role. Fortunately, some of the areas experiencing die-offs have been replanted with some success. What the future holds in a world with a rapidly changing climate, no one knows for sure.

What follows may seem a little romanticized, but for me this is true. To many, the Sword Fern is so ubiquitous on the northwest landscape as to almost escape notice. What I see though is the workhorse of the watershed. When I look at forested hillsides carpeted with Sword Ferns, or pay attention to the here-and-there patches I have planted in our yard over the years, I see red legged frogs. I see stable slopes. At the foot of a slope, I see spawning salmon thrashing in their natal stream. I see a winter wren hopping on a log and scooting among the fern fronds, its beautiful song in counterpoint with the soft pitter-patter of winter rain falling on fern fronds. I hear an unseen Swainson’s Thrush calling under the canopy of the cathedral forest. Form follows function.

*3 web links to info on mysterious Sword Fern die-off: Seattle Times, a blog about Seward Park’s Sword Ferns, Tim Billo presentation


Brian Bodenbach (Biosphere Landscaping) has been an important contributor in many ways to Tadpole Haven’s success. His practical skills are very handy, but his knowledge of native plants, ecosystems and restorative landscaping is invaluable.

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A more collaborative approach to Salal

IMGP3499SalalFlowersWBeeYears ago, a new neighbor moved in next door. Her home was pleasantly set among Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) trees. She confessed (though not very contritely) to a Sin-Against-Creation: she had taken a sample of the rangy, woody evergreen plant that grew at the base of the tall trees to a local nursery and demanded: “What is this? And how do I get rid of it?” With a look of horror, the nursery employee had informed her that the plant was our precious native Salal (Gaultheria shallon).

A Swedish relative came to visit my cousin’s family, who lived on 5 mostly-wooded acres east of Seattle. The Swede noted that, in many ways, the Puget Sound area reminded him of the Swedish landscape, green and verdant and largely forested, except… and he waved his hands at the underbrush growing among the sturdy trunks of tall Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata), Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and Douglas Fir, and said, rather scornfully, “but what is all this, this [he couldn’t find an English word for it] stuff?”

Apparently, there is something in the human psyche that wants clear sight lines through the forest (the better to see large predators?). Or maybe it is just human nature to neaten things up, to control it, to tame it.

Here in the forests of maritime Cascadia–the Garden of Eden where we have been placed–we are blessed with brush, brush and more brush! Depending on the stage of growth a particular patch of woods is in, it will have a certain amount of “understory shrubs” (a more PC phrase than “brush”). For example, the edge of a forest or in a forest with still-small trees will be infested/thick/lush with Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), Salal, Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum), Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) and/or any of a long list of view-blocking bushes. But a stand of old growth trees is much more open, because the canopies of the trees overlap, making the forest floor very shady.

Back to my new neighbor’s Salal. Growing near the front door in dense shade, it was rather sparse, with tufts of round leaves nodding at the top of tall stems. Okay, it was homely. But instead of adopting a warlike attitude (“How do I get rid of it?”), let’s imagine that she pursued educating herself (“What is this?” was a good starting point). She learned that Salal has many benefits: shelter for birds, small mammals and amphibians, nectar for bees from its pink, heather-like flowers (Salal is in the Ericaceae/Heath family), soil-anchoring power in its spreading rhizomes and raindrop-deflecting evergreen foliage, and berries for everyone! She quelled her post-Edenfruit-gnoshing-gardener-run-amok tendencies a bit and took a more collaborative approach: How can I nudge this scraggly specimen toward lush beauty? And then she discovered that pruning the woody stems down to 3-6” (or so) every few years in early spring rejuvenates the plant so it bushes out. And pruning up some tree limbs above it let more light reach the ground, giving her entire woodland garden a new lease on life.

She learned that Salal thrives in the very dry, shady conditions directly under her large Douglas Firs. She added some Sword Fern, Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), groundcovers–Inside-out Flower (Vancouveria hexandra), Redwood Sorrel (Oxalis oregana), Twinflower (Linnaea borealis)—and the dainty blooms of Foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata), and … Hallelujah, she was back in the Garden again!

Salal grows slowly and doesn’t transplant easily, so it makes sense to buy it from a nursery (hint, hint). Its roots will be well-established and ready for a home.

Black Cottonwood: balm or bomb?

Black Cottonwood (Populus balsamifera ssp. trichocarpa)

Is the silent juggernaut over? Is the Cottonwood bombing at an end? Can we get back to tending our fields and flocks again? For days now we have been under attack by the annual Cottonwood blizzard. The Cottonwood trees have unleashed wisps of snow-flake-like fluff by the tens of thousands on our poor nursery plants. Trapped in their little pots, nowhere to go, surrounded by bare soil, our chlorophyll-babies are defenseless against the relentless germinating power of a pioneer species seeking new horizons, new places to plant itself. Though we do grow some to be planted in restoration projects, we don’t really appreciate 30 extra trees in every pot in the nursery!*

Black Cottonwood is one of those native plants that doesn’t get much respect. “Junk tree” is what loggers call it. It isn’t even any good as firewood; the water content is so high that it barely cures enough to provide a few BTUs on a winter’s day. It is widely known as a “hazard tree” because of the huge branches that it occasionally sheds. It is not a tree that you’d want close to a house; it gets huge, and when it falls, its great weight can slice a house in two. So we should respect THAT if nothing else!

At the beginning of its life cycle, Cottonwood fluff released by full-grown trees – each snowflake-like poof carrying a tiny ivory seed – lands everywhere and immediately sprouts little cottonwood trees. As a tree matures, it regularly sheds branches, which often stab into the ground, sprout roots and grow new trees.

A few words on its behalf: Cottonwood grows in moist to wet conditions. It stabilizes shorelines and shades streams to the benefit of the creatures that live in them. It is a pioneer species, which means that after some kind of disturbance, say forest fire, clearing, or logging, its seeds are one of the first species to grow on the exposed soil. And they grow quickly, covering up the scars that the disturbance caused . Cottonwood consists of a great amount of biomass – leaves, constantly shed twigs and branches. Eventually the huge bulk of the whole  100-150’ tall tree – enriches the soil beneath, feeding the next plants in the line of succession. Cottonwoods that fall into streams create eddies and backwaters and shelter for fish. While it is standing, its branches provide great habitat for birds. Red-tailed Hawks, Bald Eagles and owls sit on branches near the top of the tree, surveying the countryside in search of dinner. Its crown is a favorite place for Red-tailed Hawks to nest. Deteriorating old trees and snags provide nesting cavities for birds and small mammals such as Douglas Squirrels.

In the spring, the air near Cottonwoods smells wonderful from the sticky, fragrant resin on the orange leaf buds. The resin has an antiseptic quality that Native Americans discovered. I know someone who in early spring painstakingly gathers the buds after they pop off the tree’s newly expanding leaves and makes a sweet-smelling hand lotion.

Black cottonwoods are strikingly beautiful – dark trunks and branches contrast with the brilliant green of spring leaves. The leathery, nearly heart-shaped leaves have pale, silvery undersides. In the fall the leaves turn yellow-gold on the top surface, so they really are silver and gold.

One of the most beautiful spring or fall sights which I get a chance to see on a semi-regular basis: Golden late afternoon sun sets the Cottonwoods aglow against a backdrop of dark storm clouds. The breeze from coming rain flutters the leaves making them shimmer and flash.

Next to the nursery is a field where an old Cottonwood stands. My father once told me that his mother planted it as a seedling (it probably sprouted in her flower garden!). She called it a Balm-of-Gilead Tree.

 

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*We do not use “pre-emergent” herbicide, which many nurseries apply to prevent weed seeds from germinating.

Devil’s Club – worthy of primal contemplation

This morning, Tyrannosaurus Gus (the dog) and his people (Brian and I) enact our usual morning ritual. For me, this requires oatmeal. The ritual for Brian includes coffee in the yard at the crack of dawn. The ceremony for Gus involves supplicating in fetal position, waiting for the food dish to appear in its proper place. As the rite advances, the dog rings a bell on the back door. The proper response is for either human to clip his leash on and take him outside to do his business. Gus graces the cooperating human with a walk around the yard, the dog on alert for night-deposited goodies from neighbor cats or raccoons. It’s my turn today and I use this tour to admire Brian’s handiwork: a gorgeous habitat for birds, insects, gray squirrels (booooo) and people. I am very fortunate to live with a landscape designer/contractor who loves his work! (Brian Bodenbach, Biosphere Company)

His design philosophy calls for a foundation of native plants, augmented by a select assortment of compatible non-natives. When we bought our house 13 years ago, the large yard was mostly lawn. An ever-evolving work in progress, it now includes beautiful combinations of native and non-native plants.

While the dog takes me around the yard, we pause at my favorite station – under the apple tree facing our “forest”, where about five years ago, Brian planted a small – less than one foot tall – Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus). It is now taller than me, with several side branches. He planted Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum) at its base, with Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum), Oak Fern (Gymnocarpium dryopteris), a purple-flowered variety of Hellebore (non-native) and a Hosta (Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans’ – non-native) with big, blue-gray leaves beside it, creating a pleasing yet primal scene.

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Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus) with Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum) and Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum)

Devil’s Club was a mythic shrub to be feared in my childhood – I was warned to watch out for its piercing prickles. And the name alone was scary. But now, I love its prehistorically huge leaves and thorny fierceness. The large red seeds that replace its creamy-white flowers are stunning. Though I think most Northwesterners associate it with swampy forests, it grows other places as well; I see it on shady hillsides, perhaps where water seeps just under the surface. It does well in the heavy, silty soil in our yard, which tends to hold moisture. Its roots are valued by herbalists for their therapeutic qualities. It is rhizomatous, over time forming a loose grove of often-lanky plants. It loses its leaves in the winter, leaving a knob on the top of the stem where the next spring’s leaves will emerge. With its tall, stickery stems, it stands with its comrades like sentinels, guarding the entrance to … what? The Garden of Eden? A time-travel portal to the Mesozoic Era?

I ponder these possibilities while keeping a tight grip on Gus’ leash, lest he satisfy his primal appetite for cat poop. Then we turn back toward the house to prepare for the rest of this day’s journey.

Bloomers for Dear Mamά!

A few perennials that are now in bloom:

Great Camas (Camassia leichtlinii)

Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)

Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa)

Redwood Sorrel (Oxalis oregana)

Inside-out Flower (Vancouveria hexandra)

Great Camas (Camassia leichtlinii)

  • Blue or purple star-shaped flowers.
  • Grows from an edible bulb.
  • Bright shade to full sun.
  • Can handle soggy soil in winter as long as it dries out in the summer.
  • A recent customer declared the flowers of Great Camas “other-worldly”!

Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)

  • Red-and-yellow flowers.
  • Blossoms stand higher than the foliage, up to 3 ½’ high.
  • Full sun to partial shade; moist soil.

 Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa)

  • Flowers are light to dark pink, fern-like foliage
  • Attractive deciduous groundcover 1-2 feet tall.
  • Bright shade, moist to fairly dry.

 Redwood Sorrel (Oxalis oregana)

  • Flowers white to light pink, clover-like foliage approximately one foot tall.
  • Very moist to very dry, but happily, rampantly spreads in moist conditions.
  • Full shade.

 Inside-out Flower, Duck’s Foot (Vancouveria hexandra)

  • Woodland groundcover about 1’ tall.
  • Slightly taller small nodding white flowers whose curved petals are folded backwards.
  • Irregularly rounded small leaves (shaped like a duck’s foot) — delicate, interesting texture.
  • Moist to dry conditions; partial to full shade

 

Breaking Open?

The other day, my granddaughter excitedly pointed out a flitting butterfly. In her fourth year, she has many, many years ahead of her and hopefully many, many butterflies. I look forward to showing her the butterflies that flock to the fragrant blossoms of the native Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii) by the nursery. I want hers to be a butterfly-rich world.

Butterflies demonstrate transformed Life. As a result of the waiting process and the breaking open of the chrysalis, something new and beautiful emerges. The butterfly is a symbol of Easter. Easter, coming up on Sunday, commemorates the breaking of Christ’s body and then the breaking open of the tomb—the triumph of Life over Death.

Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii)

Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii) with Swallowtail

It’s easy to look around in our world and see Brokenness everywhere. Earlier this week, I heard two authors speak. Climate change activist Bill McKibben spoke about his book, Falter. Like an Old Testament prophet, he seeks to jolt us into action on climate change despite mourning our losses. David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, has also written a new book, The Second Mountain. In it he says, when hard times come, you are either broken, or you are broken open. Either you become embittered or you become a better person, focused less on yourself and more on serving others.

Can the Brokenness in our world break us open so that we value butterflies and small children enough to creatively and lovingly protect each other and our precious planet? A butterfly is a symbol of hope, New Life. What effects can gentle wing beats have on the universe?

I don’t know what far-reaching effect a small act like planting a native shrub for the sake of the butterflies (and my grandchildren) will have, but it makes me a better human.

And now the shameless commercial for a natural product I believe in: Support our butterflies (and maybe support a local nursery) by providing food in the form of their favorite native plants. Fragrant native Mock Orange flowers provide nectar; they grow on a large deciduous shrub—10-12 feet tall–and nearly that wide! They bloom in early to mid-summer. Drought-tolerant Mock Orange loves the sun and thrives in the most exposed locations, with very well-drained sandy soils. Our summers are very dry (and getting drier!), despite western Washington’s reputation for rain. Most of our natives, unless they are strictly wetland plants, are drought-tolerant to a certain extent, but Mock Orange is a standout in the drought-tolerant category. But it will also do fine with some moisture in the soil or in partial shade. Its fantastic-smelling white flowers are enjoyed by Swallowtails and other butterflies. Birds eat the seeds.  It grows quickly; its vigorous root system will help stabilize soil on a slope.

Love among the Oemlaria

I’ve been as busy as the birds and the bees, sexing Indian Plums (Oemlaria cerasiformis). Eew! You say! What kind of twisted mind does this woman have? Really, it’s not what it sounds like! There is a practical reason for this behavior. You see, Indian Plum is dioecious; male and female flowers are found on separate plants. I am marking blooming Indian Plums in the nursery with tags noting which sex each is, so we can send them out two by two, enabling passionate plum production. Birds love the fruit and distribute the seeds.

The Indian Plums have been waiting; always one of the early bloomers, they were already beginning to unfold their flower clusters at the end of January, preparing to light up the woods like chandeliers, before Mother Nature wrecked the fun with six weeks of serious winter. 17 inches of ice and snow set back love among the Oemlaria. But the last few weeks, they have been strutting their stuff.

Both male and female plants have graceful, dangly greenish-white flower clusters. At the base of each flower in the cluster is a roundish “receptacle”. The male receptacle is empty; the female receptacle holds ovaries resembling future berries. Pollination between the two sexes enables fruit to form. Pollination only happens when the twosome becomes a threesome; an insect (moth, butterfly, bee) or hummingbird joins in the fun. Par-tay!

The easiest way to determine the gender of a blooming Indian Plum: Tweak off one of the tiny open blossoms. Using your thumbnails, vertically divide the flower in half so you can see it in cross-section. Is the “receptacle” at the base of the flower hollow? Then it’s a male plant.

Is the “receptacle” full of five tightly packed, teardrop-shaped pistils (the round part of the pistil is the ovary)? Yes? Female! Tah-dah! Now you, too, can impress friends, relatives and future mates with your arcane blossom-sexing skills!

Once you have shredded enough blossoms, you literally “get a feel” for which flowers are male (squishier) and which are female (fatter, firmer, lumpier). Destruction is no longer necessary; a gentle squeeze at the base of the flower suffices.

After learning what to look for, you can look into the depths of a flower and recognize the male features – showy yellow balls of pollen above deep-green space (this is a male flower pictured)– and female attributes – just-discernible, waxy, light green ovaries at the base of the pistils.

Read more about Indian Plum on our blog: Habitat Heroes