Winter Greenery for Birds and Biodiversity
by Soňa Mason, edited by Jody Susler
In deepest winter, you’ll find few green things on the ground but mosses and the “Christmas fern.” It’s called "Christmas fern" because parts of this hardy plant remain green and available for decorations at Christmas time. In days of yore, when synthetic wreaths were unavailable, people gathered these fern leaves to festoon their mantle places.
Native to eastern North America, this fern, the polystichum acrostichoides, lives in shaded, preferably moist places, with well-drained soil. Their rich, green fronds form 1- to 2-foot high clumps of glossy evergreen spears. They make a decent ground cover in places where it’s hard to grow anything else, and they provide much-needed cover for ground-nesting birds and other small critters.
True, by end of winter they have that slightly weather-beaten look, but quickly unfurl neat new plumes as soon as the weather warms and evens out. Easy to maintain, this fern spreads modestly and is deer-resistant, which in fact most ferns are. If you’re ever having trouble growing shade-loving species, ditch the hostas and grow a fern. Their ancient lineage survived the dinosaurs, so deer are a small threat.
And, speaking of deer resistance, think of the times you smell a pungent odor from a plant — such as garlic, onion, lavender, fennel, sage, and mint. Chances are that deer can’t tolerate raw mouthfuls of them anymore than you can. They might take a tiny bite and decide their mouths are zinging with too much of a good thing and move along to more innocent flavors.
So, in this winter while planning your spring planting, start looking up nice natives that pack a strong flavor, too. Some examples are wild mountain mint (pycnanthemum muticum, virginianum and verticillatum) — wildly popular with pollinators; northern spicebush (Lindera benzoin) — an airy understory tree and early spring bloomer; native grasses, sedges and more. But those are for another article.
In the meantime, take a hike in the forests and appreciate the hardy ferns of winter cheer. Add them to your garden list. But don’t dig them out of the forests and denude the wild. Native plants are facing a hard enough time dealing with ever encroaching development and non-native invasive plants taking over. Rather, just buy or request them from a reputable nursery that sells native plants. For more info, check out the National Audubon Society’s Native Plant Database, https://www.audubon.org/native-plants.
Soňa Mason is a member of the Orange County Audubon Society. When not removing invasive species and growing and replanting with natives, she is usually to be found wandering about in nature, taking pictures, and planning her next adventure.
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