Just One: Sword Fern

1. Bouquet-like clumps of Sword fern cascade down a steep forest slope on Fidalgo Island, Washington.

This is the first in a series of occasional posts I plan to write, featuring my take on one species of plant. This time the plant is the Western sword fern. For the last seven years I’ve been observing the natural world in the Pacific northwest through spring, summer, fall and winter, and I’m getting to know certain players on this verdant stage pretty well.

The Sword fern (Polystichum munitum) is a large, evergreen fern that ranges from Baja California to southeastern Alaska, mainly on the west (coastal) side of the mountain ranges. Along with enormous trees, this fern gives our forests their characteristic prehistoric look, as if a dinosaur might walk into the picture and be perfectly at home.

2. Sword ferns arch gracefully underneath moss-covered hemlocks in December at Moss Lake Natural Area, about an hour outside Seattle.

In the Puget Lowlands there are about 40 species of true ferns, compared to over 10,000 fern species in the world. In Skagit County, where I live, there are only a few dozen different ferns, some of which only live up in the mountains. I tell myself I should be able to find and identify all the ferns in this area. Over time, maybe I’ll get to know many of them well.

The ubiquitous Sword fern is an easy place to start.

Apart from the botanical aspects of the plant, the aesthetic aspects are also important to me – in fact when push comes to shove, the aesthetic characteristics probably move me most. Ferns are universally appealing subjects, with their simple overall shapes and repeating patterns. Sword ferns don’t have the delicate, lacy look of a typical fern; they’re big, tough evergreen plants, with fronds divided into rows of single leaflets rather than divided again and again.

This gives them a bold, graphic look.

3. In February the refreshing bright green of Sword ferns is a real treasure.

The step-wise pattern of leaflets with their little lobes marching up the blade captivates me, but the best part is seeing what happens in spring. When new fronds emerge they uncurl upwards like other ferns, but then for no apparent reason, they appear to take a U turn. At that stage they really have a Dr. Seuss-like charm. It makes me smile with delight, every spring.

If you’ve never seen them in person, you may be surprised to learn that Sword ferns can reach heights of almost five feet (1.5 m)! Each year new fronds grow from a stout, woody rhizome in a vase-shaped arrangement. Fronds can last several years so individual plants can become quite congested.

The leaflets are lined with rows of spore dots; just one frond can release tens of millions of spores in late summer. Brush the underside of a frond with ripe spores and a fine, rust-colored powder takes flight on the wind. Reproduction in ferns is a complex process that I won’t go into here; suffice it to say that it works!

4. The U turn.

5 . A clump of Sword ferns stretching out on a wet April morning.

6. Sword ferns add grace to the forest landscape at Robe Canyon Historic Park, an hour north of Seattle.

Sword ferns tolerate dryness better than many other ferns, and sunlight too, but the largest specimens grow on damper, shadier sites. Individual fronds persist for several years but if one is cut or broken, it won’t grow back. New fronds will appear in spring; over time the plant will look full again. They will colonize clear-cut areas fairly quickly, and are often a dominant understory plant in old growth forests. You’ll see them along roadsides, you’ll see them deep in the woods.

Here is my take on the Sword fern then: up close, at a distance, in color and black and white, and through all four seasons.

7. A Sword fern fiddlehead emerges with a protective head of fuzzy hair.

9. A late snowstorm won’t stop the Sword fern.

10. Fern fronds are still unfolding in May on Fidalgo Island

11. A close look at the sharp-toothed leaflets.

12. En masse, the fronds make me think of a stack of ladders.

13. Sword ferns seem to applaud the meager bits of light filtering through the forest in January.

14. Withered fronds take a long time to crumble, but they provide an attractive backdrop for this year’s fronds.

15. Repeating patterns, gotta love ’em.

16. A look at a group of gracefully draped Sword fern fronds mixed with another fern, Bracken, using a Lensbaby lens.

17. Stages of growth and decomposition.

18. Dried fronds casting shadows on a rock in March.

19. A Sword fern frond and a Cottonwood leaf slowly decompose on a bed of moss.

20. Last February more snow than usual fell here, in a short period of time. The weight of the snow broke many Sword fern fronds. This photo was taken a few days after the snowfall. New fronds came up a few months later. The old ones remain in place to slowly decompose, nourishing the soil.

21. Hoarfrost makes a brief appearance on vegetation in the mountains but the fern fronds will survive intact.

22. Spring has sprung again….

Postscript: For about seven years a citizen science project tracking the response of Sword ferns to changes in rainfall and moisture has been going on in California. Emily Burns, PhD discovered that fog is absorbed directly into the leaves and stems of many plants that grow in California’s Redwood forests. These forests are very dry at certain times of the year, like much of the American west coast, so plants have strategies to help procure and retain moisture. One adaptation Sword ferns use is to limit growth where there is little moisture, and grow prolifically where moisture is abundant. The resulting size differences are easily tracked, yielding data that sheds light on the effects of available moisture on plants over time. Scientists and volunteers are monitoring 11 Fern Watch sites to track Sword fern growth. Since fog frequency is declining, it’s likely that plant stress in these special habitats will increase, making it more and more important to understand where to concentrate efforts to preserve the giant Redwood trees. Data from the Fern Watch studies should be useful as people work to prioritize which Redwood forests are most resilient, and ensure that they are adequately protected.


  1. Beautiful pictures and thanks for all the information. Ferns are just beautiful! I just asked myself if it is possible to make an ugly picture of a fern 😉 Your photos make their asthetics visible: the rhythym, the form, the new and beautiful fiddleheads (nr. 7 is wonderful!), everything actually and at every time of year. The single leaves are just as beautiful as the whole “leave”. Interesting the project about the growth of the ferns. Your sword fern seems to be well adapted to two different and oppositional conditions. When you think of the plants existing in primeval times they seem to be tough plants! Maybe it will be still there, when we are gone (if the planet ever gets rid of us ;-). I think all the ferns are nice. And yours is evergreen? I think our main fern gets brown and retracts over the winter months. A beautiful and inspiring plant 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • It IS possible, I have proof. 😉 But you’re right, they really are beautiful, and this is just one kind. One that is totally evergreen, yes! The leaves are strong and thick, for a fern. Sword ferns are amazing, the way they grow in sunny, difficult conditions on roadsides (but almost always where there’s a little shade and a hill for drainage). and then you see them thrive in the temperate rain forest. Yes, maybe – probably – they will be here even after we’re gone. Thank you Almuth! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hm, we have a word in German: Lebenskünstler – I can’t find it in the online dictionary. Live-artist maybe. Someone who understands to live in every situation. I think this swordfern is a real Lebenskünstler! It is the same we experience now with the next drought: the native flowers grow best without a drop of rain. They are best adapted, so is your fern 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This reminds me of a nice fern garden gone wild in Irondequoit, a neighbor of Webster (Where life is worth living). I haven’t been there in years but now I think I’ll definitely make the effort to pay it a visit, Numbers 1-14 have an interesting infrared look that is very complimentary to the ferns. It’s a nice effect but I’m not sure how you achieved it. Exceptional little portfolio, Lynn.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, please visit the fern garden – I’m sure you will make some beautiful images there. Ferns are inspiring, so much fun to work with. As you might imagine, I have lots more. 😉 As for the infrared look, it’s something I’m fond of, but I get there in a roundabout way. Lots of fiddling. That was the vision in #1, in #14 I think the effect was more a result of seeing what the photo would look like in black and white, then looking to enhance the contrast between fresh and dried ferns. I’m very pleased that you like the photos, Ken, thank you.


  3. This post is full of interesting information on sword ferns and very stimulating in general: immediately I’ve become active to find out which kind of fern it is growing in my garden (it’s a Dryopteris filix, in German called Wurmfarn).
    I like your idea concentrating on one plant, giving information and photos. Photos of many different kinds, all these beautiful lightings, perspectives, details.
    Especially fascinates me the black-and-white version that tends to an infrared impression. Beautiful way to make a step into abstraction, where ferns always entice me.
    I’m looking forward to your next plant special, Lynn!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The fern you have sounded familiar, and sure enough, it is native where you live AND where I live! It’s a pretty one! I don’t see it much in this area but it probably can be found in the forests inland.
      It’s good to hear your thoughts – I really enjoy working with black and white, and especially the infrared look, and also making more abstract images. But I always come back to the realistic ones, because part of me just loves the world-as-it-is, if you know what I mean. I will probably focus on the Madrone tree next, the one growing here and has red-orange, peeling bark. There is at least one other fern that’s intriguing, too…..thank you Ule, I hope the heat has not ruined too many days for you. I know it’s been really rough!

      Liked by 1 person

      • The heat hasn’t only ruined days, but my water bill to come: I had the choice: bill or garden ruined 🙂. Now it is still very warm, at least 10° less, but no drop of rain in sight. Disastrous!
        You’ ve already shown some beautiful photos of Madrone trees, which I have never seen in nature – so this will be a great post to come.
        I’ll send you a photo of my garden fern soon.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Applause! Good! 🙂 I like the infrared look, but my route to it varies and I don’t remember quite how I got to the final image for #1. You’re the second person who saw a seahorse! 🙂 The “caterpillar” look is what this fern does as it unfurls, which is so strange. It doubles back, creating the most outlandish shapes.


  4. I read this post with great interest, Lynn. I developed my love for ferns living among these gorgeous ferns as a child. I’ve heard of the fern watch but wasn’t sure what the scientists were looking for. That is very interesting and distressing. I didn’t realize fog was becoming less frequent. What is the Pacific NW without fog?! I’m thankful this work is being done and the information used to help protect key redwood stands, but I’m wondering whether there is any effort being made to plant then in Oregon and WA? Here we have created green corridors that run north to south so that creatures and plants can retreat to the north if need be, and I know that some species of plants are being planted north of their customary range so that they might have a refuge when things get too hot and dry for them. In recent years we have been getting a great deal more rain here than usual, and I know that in deep history redwoods grew over much of what is now the US, so I’m even thinking of ordering some to plant here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not sure, but I suppose less frequent fog relates to the warmer temperatures and drier air. I have no idea about planting redwoods….good question. I understand what you’re talking about with the green corridors but again, I don’t know if there are any initiatives like that in the west. Hopefully someone is working on that, or will.


      • Yes, hopefully. I know if I lived out there I’d see if I could shoehorn a few on my yard. I’ve been thinking about it and I suppose the ocean temperature is going up, which would reduce the difference between the water and land, which would decrease fog. Kinda scary, really.


  5. Beautiful photos and very nice writing, you’ve done so well by a graceful plant. The U-turn feature does give them a Dr. Seuss feel, elaborate but droopy, like exaggerated elephant trunks, and at that stage, I could see them wandering the woods with the dinosaurs. The patterns & shadows you’ve shown are terrific, and that hoarfrost shot, but I like 16 & 18 the best of all. 16 has a great festive feel, and maybe also due to the “sword” name, suggests plumes on a cavalier’s hat, and 18 has nice bold shadows, like those old illustrations by N. C. Wyeth, etc. This idea of spotlighting one species is a great idea.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Elephant trunks, yes, that’s it too. How good to hear you single out the lensbaby image – those lenses can be frustrating to use but when they work, the results can be wonderful. The shadows on the rock was beautiful when I saw it but the photos didn’t quite measure up – you know how that is! So again, it’s good to know you see something there. Old N.C. Wyeth illustrations….nice! I’ll keep up with this idea, thank you Robert, for the encouragement.


    • I worry sometimes that people might not want to wade through the text, but then, one can always just look at the photos, and it seems that there are quite a few people who do enjoy the text. Thanks for your vote of confidence, Louis! I hope you aren’t wilting under the heat.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. That’s very nice. The simplicity and elegance of #15 is particularly appealing to me, but the entire series of images represents all the different qualities of the fern very well. I like that.

    Oh and, is #1 an actual infrared or did you get this look just through developing the photo on the computer? It’s TOTALLY convincing!

    (also, finally something that’s more within my own photographic territory again so I have something meaningful to say;-)).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not a “real” infrared, Alex, and I’m sorry to say I don’t remember quite how I got there, but it’s a look I like and that was my aim when I processed the photo. #15 leans toward just showing the patterns, which is so much fun to do with ferns, or with anything actually – fern structure just makes it easier. I’m really pleased that you enjoyed the post. I think I’ll do the next one on Madrone trees, which you probably know. They’re almost at their northern limit up here, but they do reach into coastal BC. I love them, such amazing trees. Well, there’s so much to love, isn’t there? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, great job creating a totally convincing looking infrared lookalike! 🙂

        And ohhhh, Madrones, that would be great. I’m really looking forward to seeing the tall relative to our Manzanitas! 🙂


  7. ô lala, quelle série….sourire…déjà rien que la première, elle est sublime de douceur…sourire..
    j’aime tout spécialement toutes les “noir-blanc”, où l’on pourrait presque douter entre le monde animal et végétal…sourire encore…
    merci !

    Liked by 1 person

    • super, je suis content que le message vous ait fait sourire, irene…les fougères sont des sujets d’art merveilleux, surtout en noir et blanc. et oui, des plantes ou des animaux? – deux personnes ont vu des hippocampes! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I love the idea of this series, Lynn! It proposes a long-term relationship with the subject, and you’ve related that so well through your text and photos. It’s always a treat to learn about plants I’ve seen, but never appreciated… until now. The description of the U-Turn is perfection!

    I enjoyed the detail of #8 (?) as well as the fragility of #21.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Lynn. This fern is all over the place here, and is easy to take for granted, but as you can see, it’s a great photography subject. (Yes, that was #8 – I haven’t figured out how to get a number on the galleries). Have a good week!


  9. 01 – wow – gorgeous – a delicate fantasy and an arresting initial image
    06 – lush and lovely
    22 – playful

    And how nice to gain insight into the plant, while seeing its various incarnations

    Liked by 1 person

    • You know, #1 goes back to that photo you did so long ago, the one you gave me (that I can’t locate now!). So thank you for the inspiration, seriously. #6 is really a pretty normal looking path through the woods near home, believe it or not. Thanks for taking the time to comment Lenny, I appreciate it!


  10. Ah, the ubiquitous fern. Tough old plant, conditioned by millions of years of evolution – we should only be so well adjusted.

    I quite like #1, you really pushed the brights on the underlying greens and yellows beyond anything I’d have thought of. And the hoarfrost one too, just because ferns seem like a more temperate forest kind of thing and I’ve never seen a frosty one.

    How do you like the Lensbaby? They’re made locally, but as much as I like to support the local businesses I don’t know if they’re quite my thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Funny, what you said about ferns in general. 🙂 Pushing the brightness in #1 came from seeing a photo done in an infrared style many years ago, by a friend, and also from a general liking for lightness and such. I would think you could find a Sword fern with hoarfrost if you happen to get to the right place at just the right time – maybe one of your parks on a January morning. It can be so fleeting; I’m always thrilled to be able to photograph it.Trying a Lensbaby (yes, I know about the Portland connection) was encouraged by another blogger, and we found one at an affordable price on ebay (I think they’re rather over-priced). I really enjoy it, though I don’t use it often. It forces you to look differently, work differently, etc. It can be very frustrating but then there are such serendipitous images that come out of it. Maybe you can borrow or rent one sometime, or pick up a used one, if you’re not sure.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. What a wonderful idea, having a whole series on just one plant species. I live the ones of the feens slowly unfurling. I really look forward to seeing more species where you live!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. You’ve done some interesting research on the Sword Fern, Lynn. The notation about fog is good info- I wondered how they survive in the dry summer when I saw them covered in dust in the Redwoods in July. Your photographs are beautiful studies of the fiddleheads and the graphic shapes of the fronds. Some beauties in B&W.


  13. These are majestic, ancient plants that hold a powerful foothold, a veritable force, in woodland gardens. Thanks for the illuminating essay on them. I’ve transplanted dozens into my rock-moss gardens here on Vancouver Island and they add a richness–without fussy care–to the Doug forest edge and rock wall terraces. Fronds forever. WM

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fronds forever – I love it. Thank you so much for visiting, for commenting, and for planting ferns. In case you’re interested, this “Just One” post is part of a series that includes Licorice fern and Madrone trees – you might like those posts, too. Have a good week!


  14. Pingback: JUST ONE: Seaside juniper « bluebrightly

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s