DEER FERN, LADDER FERN, HARD FERN
Pronounced: BLEK-num SPEE-kant
North America: Alaska, British Columbia, California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Europe, and N.E. Asia.
Sunset zones: 2b-7, 14-19, 24.
USDA zones: 5-8.
Heat zones: 8-5.
Height: 8-20 inches (20-50 cm).
Width: 3 feet (60 cm).
Lance-shaped and pinnate, dark green, evergreen fronds.
Compact growth habit, creeping rhizomes.
Partial to deep shade.
Humus rich (preferably with leaf mold), moist, acidic soil.
Divide in spring.
Sow spores in late summer.
Rainy Side Notes
Deer fern are native in different areas around the globe. They are easily identifiable when its ladder-like, fertile, deciduous fronds, which grow straight up and down in its center, are present. The outer, sterile evergreen fronds spread out in a rosette around the perimeter.
Blechnum is the Greek word for this hardy fern, while spicant means a tufted hard fern; in other words (and I can't resist saying), it's a hardy, hard fern. It ranges from sea to alpine levels, but looks its best in a mossy woodland setting with plenty of moisture and acidic soil. New growth is a pale green compared to its mature deep green foliage.
This is an easy little fern to grow in our maritime gardens in Pacific Northwest acidic soil. It thrives in shade, but can even handle full sun if given extra supplemental watering. In my garden it grows under our native vine maple—Acer circinatum. However, the fern also thrives on neglect under my Chinese redbud tree—Cercis chinensis 'Avondale' and beneath an arbor.
Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island in Washington State has an enormous moss garden filled with these little fern beauties. The garden is kept in pristine condition with not one moss hair out of place. If you haven't visited this estate, filled with wonderful gardens, you are in for a treat.
Deer and mountain goats graze on these ferns; after the deer's antlers break off, they rub the sore stubs on the fronds.
Native Americans observed the animals doing this and began to use it for their own skin sores. They chewed the foliage for internal cancer treatments, digestive aid, and for diarrhea. A poultice made from the fronds was applied to areas of the body afflicted with paralysis, and other ailments.
When there was no other food available, two tribes used the ferns as "starvation food" eating it only as a last resort. Others placed the fronds under food in their steaming pits. Other uses included frond fiber for bedding, rugs and mats.
Top image photographed at Bloedel Reserve; bottom image photographed in the Treherne and Michel garden. Both gardens are located on Bainbridge Island, Washington.