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Soft Shield Fern

Polystichum setiferum

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Plant Profile

Dryopteridaceae (Wood Fern)
Life Cycle:
Maximum Size:
90 centimetres tall
Gardens, waterside, woodland.
Ferns are not flowering plants. Instead they have spores. The prominent dark orange to brown spores appear on the undersides of the fronds. Spores appear in the months of July and August in the UK.
A tufted evergreen, perennial, mid-green fern.
Other Names:
Deer Fern.
Frequency (UK):

Similar Species

Other Information


Polystichum setiferum, also known as soft shield fern or deer fern, is a species of fern that is native to North America and parts of Europe. It is a perennial, evergreen fern that can grow to be up to 90 cm tall and wide. The fronds are delicate and lacy, and the fertile fronds are typically shorter than the sterile fronds. The leaves are dark green and glossy, with a distinct midrib.

It is a hardy plant that can tolerate a wide range of soil conditions and can adapt to varying levels of light and shade. The plant prefers a cool, moist, and well-drained soil, but can also tolerate dry conditions once established. It is a slow-growing plant that can take several years to reach its full size.

This plant is widely used as an ornamental plant, it's a great addition to a shaded garden and can be grown in rock gardens, woodland gardens, or along a stream or pond. It also can be used in large containers on patios, decks or terraces, or they can be used as indoor house plants. It can be propagated by spores or by division of the rhizomes.

As it is a deer-resistant plant, Polystichum setiferum can be useful to grow in gardens with problem of deer browsing.

It is relatively easy to care for and low maintenance, it doesn't need to be fertilized, but the bed should be mulched with leaf mold or compost for good drainage and to keep the soil consistently moist. It is also important to keep the area around the ferns clear of fallen leaves, as they can mat together and retain moisture which can lead to fungal problems.


Soft Shield Fern, or Polystichum setiferum, is a species of fern that is native to Europe and parts of Western Asia. It is a popular ornamental plant in many parts of the world, valued for its attractive fronds and ability to thrive in a wide range of growing conditions.

The Soft Shield Fern is a member of the Polystichum genus, which includes over 200 species of ferns. It is a relatively large fern, growing to a height of up to 90cm and a spread of up to 60cm. Its fronds are evergreen and can reach a length of up to 1m. The fronds are highly divided, with each leaflet being finely toothed and soft to the touch, giving rise to the common name "soft shield fern".

Soft Shield Fern is a highly adaptable plant, able to grow in a wide range of soils, from well-drained to poorly-drained, and can tolerate both sun and shade. It is also drought-tolerant once established, making it a good choice for gardens in areas with low rainfall. Soft Shield Fern is also highly pest-resistant, and is not typically affected by the diseases that commonly afflict other fern species.

The Soft Shield Fern is a popular ornamental plant, prized for its attractive fronds and ease of care. It is commonly used in rock gardens, woodland gardens, and as a groundcover under trees. It also makes an excellent container plant, either on its own or as part of a mixed planting. In addition to its ornamental value, Soft Shield Fern is also used in traditional medicine to treat a variety of ailments, including inflammation, pain, and skin disorders.

If you are considering growing Soft Shield Fern in your garden, it is important to select a location with well-drained soil and partial to full shade. It is important to water the plant regularly during the growing season, and to mulch around the base of the plant to help retain moisture in the soil. Soft Shield Fern is a slow-growing plant, so be patient and allow it time to establish itself in its new location.

Soft Shield Fern is known for its ability to create a lush and green environment in the garden, adding to the natural beauty of the landscape. It is also an excellent plant for providing a habitat for small animals and insects, such as snails, slugs, and spiders. These creatures help to maintain a healthy ecosystem in the garden, which in turn supports the growth and health of other plants.

One of the unique features of the Soft Shield Fern is its ability to handle cold temperatures. It can withstand temperatures as low as -20 degrees Celsius, making it a hardy plant for gardens in cooler regions. However, it is important to protect the fern from extreme cold, such as frost or snow, by covering it with a protective layer of mulch or a cloth.

Propagation of Soft Shield Fern is typically done through division, which involves separating the plant into smaller sections and replanting them in new locations. This can be done in the early spring or late autumn, when the plant is not actively growing. Once the new plants have been established, they will require the same care and maintenance as mature plants.

Soft Shield Fern is a low-maintenance plant, but it does require some basic care to thrive. Regular watering, especially during dry spells, is important to keep the soil moist and prevent the fern from drying out. Additionally, removing any dead or damaged fronds will help to keep the plant looking tidy and healthy.

Soft Shield Fern is also used for various culinary purposes. The young fronds of the fern, also known as fiddleheads, are considered a delicacy in some parts of the world. They are harvested in the spring before they unfurl and are cooked in a variety of ways, including sautéing, grilling, or boiling. Fiddleheads are a rich source of vitamins A and C, as well as iron and potassium.

However, it is important to note that not all ferns are safe for consumption. Some ferns contain toxic compounds that can cause illness or even death if ingested. It is always important to properly identify the plant and ensure that it is safe for consumption before eating any part of it.

Soft Shield Fern has also been used in traditional medicine for a variety of ailments. The fern is believed to have anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, and has been used to treat conditions such as arthritis, gout, and skin disorders. However, more research is needed to fully understand the potential health benefits of Soft Shield Fern.

In addition to its use in traditional medicine, Soft Shield Fern has also been used for various industrial purposes. The fronds of the fern contain a high concentration of tannins, which are used in the production of leather and dyes. The plant has also been used for erosion control and as a natural filter for wastewater.

Soft Shield Fern has a rich history of folklore and symbolism in various cultures around the world. In some parts of Europe, the fern was believed to have magical powers and was used in various rituals and ceremonies. It was also believed to bring good luck and protect against evil spirits. In the Victorian era, Soft Shield Fern was often included in floral arrangements and was associated with sincerity and love.

In addition to its cultural significance, Soft Shield Fern also has important ecological value. As a fern, it is part of a group of plants that are known for their ability to absorb and store carbon dioxide, which helps to mitigate the effects of climate change. The plant also provides important habitat for a variety of wildlife, including birds, insects, and small mammals.

In recent years, there has been growing interest in using Soft Shield Fern and other ferns as a natural way to clean the air and remove pollutants from the environment. Research has shown that ferns are effective at removing toxins such as formaldehyde, benzene, and xylene from the air, making them a valuable addition to indoor environments.

Overall, Soft Shield Fern is a fascinating and valuable plant that has a long and rich history of use and symbolism. Whether grown for its beauty, cultural significance, or ecological value, it is a plant that has much to offer and is sure to continue to play an important role in gardens and landscapes around the world.

Distribution Map

Reproduced by kind permission of the BSBI.

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