What is a Deer Fern?

R. Britton

A deer fern, scientific name Blechnum spicant, is one of 18 species of the group known as hard ferns. It is a semi-evergreen perennial native to North America and Europe and has been naturalized across most of the world. The deer fern has two types of glossy green leaves and large numbers of sori. It has a moderate to rapid growth rate. This species can tolerate a wide range of conditions and is relatively easy to grow and maintain.

Woman with a flower
Woman with a flower

Hard ferns, members of the genus Blechnum, are characterized by their tough, leathery leaves with a distinct glossy sheen. A deer fern grows in dense clumps and spreads outwards via rhizomatous growth. This is a method of asexual reproduction in which the plant produces a number of underground trailers called rhizomes. The rhizomes tunnel through the soil away from the parent plant and send new shoots through the soil surface. These shoots develop into replicas of the parent plant; once they begin to mature, these offspring put out their own rhizomes.

This species produces both fertile and sterile fronds, or leaves. Sterile fronds are usually shorter and paler in color. Fertile fronds are longer and usually stand more erect. These plants are classed as semi-deciduous; only the fertile fronds are deciduous and fall away during late autumn, whereas the sterile fronds are evergreen and live through the cold weather. On the underside of the fertile fronds, masses of sori are produced.

In relation to ferns, sori are small mounds which contain huge numbers of sporangia. Sporangia are tiny sacs which contain large numbers of spores released as they mature. The spores are the equivalent of seeds and create new plants.

The deer fern is tolerant of a wide range of conditions and is therefore reasonably easy to grow for even an inexperienced gardener. Able to cope with a wide pH range of 5.5 to 7.5, this species can grow in almost any soil type providing the soil is moist and has good drainage. It is often grown in exposed locations because it rarely suffers any damage from wind and weather.

This plant cannot tolerate long periods of drought, however, and is unable to cope if exposed to temperatures below -5° Fahrenheit (-20° Celsius.) If the deer fern is exposed to these extreme temperatures without any protection, it will die. To offer some warmth and protection, the deer fern can be covered with gardening fleece, and mulch can be deeply piled around the base to keep the temperature at safe levels.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


@burcinc-- Deer fern and sword fern is similar. Their appearance is practically the same but deer fern is smaller than sword fern. And the fronds of deer fern are round, not pointed like sword fern.

@seag47-- Deer fern is edible (like sword fern), but you still have to be careful about which parts you consume and the preparation. The shoots of deer fern, also called fiddleheads, can be eaten. But you need to properly remove the chaffs, wash and cook them before eating. Some eat it raw but that's not really a good idea. It can upset your stomach.

Making tea on the other hand is easier and safer. Just pick the ends of the leaves, wash and infuse in hot water.


@John57 - I don't know if the deer will eat deer fern or not. I have a lot of ostrich fern in my yard, and I have found the deer have eaten them many times.

In fact, I don't have very many plants or flowers that the deer don't like, so I wouldn't be surprised if they like to eat deer fern as well. If it's green, and not poisonous to them, they will probably eat it.


One thing I like about ferns is that just about anyone can grow them. I am not much of a gardener, but ferns seem to thrive on my property.

I don't do anything special to take care of them either. They just come up every year whether I do anything with them or not.

I enjoy the feathery look of ferns, but would not be able to identify a deer fern from any other type of fern.

I wonder with the word 'deer' in the name, if deer like to eat these ferns? They don't seem to bother the ones in my yard, but I constantly find they have nibbled on a lot of my other plants.


I live in an area of the country that gets extremely cold in the winter. Because we often have winter days and nights that are well below zero, I am not able to grow deer fern where I live.

There are other types of ferns that survive our harsh winters though, and I know every spring I will see them turning green and start growing for another season.

My sister has quite a few deer fern in her yard, but she doesn't get the cold winters that we do. She also doesn't get extremely hot temperatures in the summer, which isn't good for most ferns either.


@burcidi-- I don't have any deer fern in my yard, but there is a lot of it growing naturally in the forest near my home.

Deer fern is pretty similar to sword fern in appearance isn't it? I'm not much versed in ferns but my close friend is. She has several different types of fern including sword fern. When she showed them to me a couple of weeks ago, I realized that it's almost identical to the deer fern I had seen in the forest.


@shell4life-- I agree with you that deer fern looks beautiful around the house during wintertime. That's why it's always a good idea to plant it in spots where it will be easily visible. My deer ferns are right by our garden table, so I kind of showcase them to guests and neighbors.

The other great part about deer fern is that it doesn't grow and multiply out of control. There are some hard ferns that grow so rapidly that they can take over a whole area in a short period of time. Deer fern doesn't have this problem at all. It's very easy to care for and maintain.


They may be hardy ferns as far as winter temperatures are concerned, but don’t try to plant them if you live in the deep South. The extended dry periods and temperatures in excess of 100 degrees will kill them.

I live in Mississippi, and I tried growing some deer ferns in my yard. I don’t have any trees, so there was no shade, and this made the moisture in the soil dry up even quicker.

Even though I watered them daily, they just couldn’t take being baked in the sun at such a high temperature. They turned yellow and then brown, and I had to face defeat.


I love deer ferns because they can survive all year long. All of my other plants die when the first frost arrives, but the deer fern keeps a bit of greenery in my yard even when the grass has turned beige.

I don’t have any evergreen trees, like pine or cedar, so the ferns are the only living thing in my yard during the winter. They really draw attention to their part of the yard, so I keep the area decorated with wicker furniture.

Once spring arrives, they blend back in with everything else. They do get to be the star for a few months, though.


@seag47 - I’m not sure about that. You might want to check with a botanist who knows about all the different types of ferns or someone at a health food store before trying that. I wouldn’t want to risk it either.

I have a deer fern in my shady front yard, but I have never once thought about nibbling on it. It makes the area look so fertile. I associate the big fronds of healthy ferns with the floor of the jungle, so when I see some in a person’s yard, I automatically think that the soil must be super fertile.

I didn’t know before reading this article that deer ferns aren’t that picky about soil conditions. Well, at least they make the land look lush, even if it isn’t.


I have heard people say that you can eat the rhizomes of a deer fern. My grandmother told me that this is what her parents instructed her to do if she ever got lost in the woods.

They also told her that she could eat the fronds to keep from becoming dehydrated. Now, I have read that deer fern fronds can be used to make tea, so there might be something to this.

Has anyone here ever eaten a deer fern or made tea from it? I would hate to try it solely based on folklore and risk finding out that it’s poisonous.

Post your comments
Forgot password?