Outdoors

Sword fern a ubiquitous county evergreen

It’s hard to walk through the woods in Whatcom County without seeing the sword fern, also known as the western sword fern.

This big evergreen fern — it can grow about 4½ feet tall — has pointed leaves that are leathery and dark green. It is found from Alaska to California and east to northern Idaho.

Sword ferns were used by coastal natives living in the Northwest as bedding and flooring and to provide a protective layer in traditional pit ovens. When they were desperately hungry, tribal people such as the Haida and Squamish dug up the root-like rhizomes in the spring and ate them, while the Nuu-chah-nulth ate the rhizomes to cure diarrhea.

Northwest gardeners like to cultivate sword fern for woodland gardens, possibly because it can grow in sun or shade, next to a stream bank or a fence. And once established, it is tolerant to drought.

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