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Hard Shield Fern

Polystichum aculeatum

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Plant Profile

Dryopteridaceae (Wood Fern)
Life Cycle:
Maximum Size:
1 metre tall
Hedgerows, mountains, riversides, rocky places, walls, waterside, woodland.
Ferns produce spores to reproduce and so ferns are flowerless.
The spores ripen between July and February.
Hard Shield Fern is an evergreen tufted fern with overwintering, glossy, dark green leaves (fronds). The leaves emerge from the surface of the ground in a rosette formation. They branches are erect and arching. The leaves are 1 to 2-pinnate with pointed, unstalked or short-stalked secondary leaflets. This fern is not too dissimilar to Male Fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) but Male Fern is larger and has broader leaves. Also, the leaves of Hard Shield Fern are more leathery. The stalks are covered in reddish-brown scales. Common in deciduous woodland, often in shady places and on limestone. Prefers wetter habitats.
Other Names:
Prickly Shield Fern.
Frequency (UK):

Similar Species

Other Information


Polystichum aculeatum, also known as hard shield fern or prickly shield fern, is a species of fern that is native to Europe and Asia. It is a perennial plant that typically grows to be about one to two feet tall. The fronds of P. aculeatum are evergreen and leathery in texture, and are about 2-3 feet long and 6-12 inches wide. They are divided into many narrow, sharply pointed leaflets, hence the common name of "prickly shield fern." The fronds are green and glossy on the upper surface and paler and slightly felted on the underside. They are held on dark brown, wiry and erect stipes (stems)

This fern is well adapted to dry and shady condition, it prefers well-drained soils, and will grow in full to partial shade. It is often found growing in rocky crevices, on walls, or on banks of streams and rivers. The hard shield fern is a popular ornamental plant, and can be grown in rock gardens, woodland gardens, or as a border plant. It is widely available commercially and considered as an easy plant to grow. It can also be grown indoors, in a terrarium or a well-lit room.

It is hardy in USDA zones 5-8, but can be grown in cooler climates in a container and brought inside for the winter.


The Hard Shield Fern, also known as Polystichum aculeatum, is a species of fern that is native to Europe and Asia. It is a hardy plant that can grow in a variety of habitats, including woodlands, heathlands, and moorlands. In this blog, we will discuss the key characteristics of the Hard Shield Fern, its habitat and distribution, and how it is used in gardens.

Key Characteristics

The Hard Shield Fern is a medium-sized fern that can grow up to 60cm in height. It has a dense, clumping habit and forms a rosette of dark green, glossy fronds. The fronds are bipinnate, meaning they are divided into numerous small leaflets, which are sharply toothed at the tips. The leaflets are arranged in pairs along the stem, and the fronds have a distinctive, triangular shape.

The Hard Shield Fern produces spores on the underside of its fronds, in small, round sori that are protected by a hard, shield-shaped indusium. This gives the fern its common name, as the indusia resemble miniature shields.

Habitat and Distribution

The Hard Shield Fern is native to Europe and Asia, where it can be found growing in a variety of habitats. It prefers shady, damp locations and can often be found growing on damp, rocky outcrops in woodlands, heathlands, and moorlands. It is particularly common in upland areas and can be found at altitudes of up to 1200m.

The Hard Shield Fern is widely distributed throughout its native range, and can also be found in North America, where it has been introduced as an ornamental plant.

Uses in Gardens

The Hard Shield Fern is a popular garden plant, as it is hardy and easy to grow. It is particularly well-suited to shady areas, where it can be used to provide texture and interest. It is often planted in rock gardens, woodland gardens, and mixed borders, where its glossy fronds and distinctive shape can be appreciated.

In addition to its ornamental value, the Hard Shield Fern also has a number of practical uses. The fronds can be used as a natural mulch, helping to retain moisture in the soil and suppress weeds. They can also be used to make a natural dye, which produces shades of yellow and brown.


The Hard Shield Fern is a hardy and attractive plant that is well-suited to shady, damp locations. With its distinctive, shield-shaped indusia and glossy, dark green fronds, it adds texture and interest to any garden. It is also a useful plant, with a range of practical uses. Whether you are looking to add interest to a rock garden or create a natural mulch for your garden beds, the Hard Shield Fern is a versatile and valuable addition to any garden.

More Information

The Hard Shield Fern is an excellent choice for a variety of garden styles, from rustic woodland gardens to modern urban gardens. It is particularly well-suited to Japanese-style gardens, where its dark green fronds and distinctive shape can be used to create a sense of calm and tranquility.

When planting the Hard Shield Fern, it is important to choose a location that is shady and well-draining. It prefers soil that is rich in organic matter, so it is a good idea to amend the soil with compost or well-rotted manure before planting. Once established, the fern is relatively low-maintenance, and will thrive with occasional watering and regular fertilization.

The Hard Shield Fern is also an important plant for wildlife. It provides cover and habitat for a variety of small animals, including insects, spiders, and lizards. The fronds can also be used as nesting material by birds and small mammals, and the spores are a food source for a variety of insects.

In addition to its practical uses, the Hard Shield Fern has a long history of medicinal use. It was traditionally used to treat a range of ailments, including respiratory problems, digestive disorders, and skin conditions. While there is limited scientific evidence to support these uses, the fern is still used in some traditional medicines today.

The Hard Shield Fern is a valuable and versatile plant that is well-suited to a variety of garden styles. Whether you are looking to create a naturalistic woodland garden or a contemporary urban space, the Hard Shield Fern is an excellent choice that will provide texture, interest, and practical benefits for many years to come.

One of the interesting facts about the Hard Shield Fern is that it is an ancient plant species that has been around for millions of years. In fact, fossils of similar ferns have been found dating back to the Jurassic period, which was over 200 million years ago.

Another unique characteristic of the Hard Shield Fern is its ability to tolerate cold temperatures. It is one of the few fern species that can survive in temperatures as low as -20°C, making it a popular plant for colder climates.

If you are interested in growing the Hard Shield Fern in your garden, it is important to note that it can be propagated through spores or division. To propagate through spores, simply collect the spores from the underside of the fronds and sow them in a moist, well-draining soil mix. To propagate through division, carefully divide the plant into smaller sections and replant in a well-draining soil mix.

In terms of pests and diseases, the Hard Shield Fern is generally quite resistant. However, it can be susceptible to root rot if the soil is too wet or poorly drained. To prevent this, be sure to plant the fern in a well-draining location and avoid overwatering.

In conclusion, the Hard Shield Fern is a fascinating and versatile plant that has a lot to offer for gardeners and nature enthusiasts alike. Whether you are interested in its ornamental value, practical uses, or ecological benefits, the Hard Shield Fern is a valuable addition to any garden.

Distribution Map

Reproduced by kind permission of the BSBI.

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