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Arborvitae Fern: An Evergreen Beauty

Selaginella braunii is known as arborvitae fern, but it's not a fern. It's also called spike moss, but it's not a moss, either.The only thing I knew about it when I bought it last year was that it was a deeply discounted, dried-up plant. However, the nursery owner assured me was still alive and would be beautiful. I had my doubts, but at a couple of dollars each, I was willing to try.

I bought six of them. I planted three under a large Japanese maple in the front garden, the other three closer to the house beneath some azaleas. The ones close to the house are watered often, as they are a few feet from the water faucet. The other three get watered when it rains. One under the maple died, but the other two survived, though they are growing slowly.

Now this plant has stolen my heart. Yesterday I was strolling around my garden, examining plants to see what winter has wrought and looking for signs of spring. The colors of the arborvitae fern caught my attention. While some fronds remain green, others have taken on silvery bronze colors. I love the effect.

Since last year I have learned a lot about my arborvitae fern. This plant is a lycopod, an ancient relative of plants seen in fossils. The free online dictionary defines a lycopod as a primitive evergreen moss-like plant with spores in club shaped strobiles. The small club shaped cones give the plant another name: club moss.

A native of China, Selaginella braunii will grow in zones 6-9, in shade to partial shade. It needs moist, humous rich and well-drained soil. A lovely plant for a container, it likes humidity and also makes a good plant for a terrarium. It grows up to a foot high and will spread to about two feet. Eventually clumps will form, and it can serve as a ground cover, eliminating weeds. This is why I originally bought mine, though I will have to wait a few years for that to happen. Little roots form along the stems, and it is easy to propagate the plant by division. They grow relatively slowly, and I don't want to divide mine yet; so I am thinking about buying more. I plan to put several down in the woodland garden, where they will complement the hosta, azaleas, and ferns already growing there. I will fertilize my plants in early spring with an all purpose, slow-release fertilizer, and I promise to keep them - all of them - well watered. 

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Reader Comments (19)

I've never seen or heard of this plant. I can see why you love it. Anything evergreen gets extra points from me. It sounds like it will grow here and I'll be looking out for it at the nursery.

January 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

What a great discovery. It's such a delight when you bring something home and in growing it, discover its charms and unique qualities almost by accident!

January 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaurrie

This is a very pretty plant, with the finely cut leaves and silver color. Looks like money well spent.

January 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDonna

This plant is new to me. A very nice variation of color. Makes for good interest in the winter garden. I too am scrounging around looking for signs of spring!

January 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris

I bought one this spring and potted it. Then I realized I had one already in a spot that was taken over by other ground cover. I love them! I ended up planting the potted one in the spot where the pot was because it seemed happy there. I will move the other one or divide it as well. Great post for learning more about it! Thankd Deb! I'm working on growing more ferns and will see how many survived this winter come spring!

January 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEve

Deb, I have seen this plant in the wild and always been fascinated by it. I have never seen it for sale. Thank you for highlighting. Now I will look for it at nurseries and maybe I can offer it to my customers at my nursery.

That is such a lovely fern - just out of my hardiness zone, but maybe I could try just one. Sounds like it would be very useful in a lot of dry shade spots.

January 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCyndy

H'm.....I might just have to keep an eye out for this one. I've got shade, I've got moist soil, and a new bed to plant :-) Interesting foliage.

January 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterToni -Signature Gardens

it's alive and thriving! Actually, it looks very much like the ferns that grow wild here. I enjoy your posts very much and have just added your site to my blog roll.

January 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterOne

A great looking foliage plant. I can see it in a container with fronds gently drooping over the edges.

January 18, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjoene

Yes, Selaginellas are fabulous, primitive plants and its really good to find someone growing them.
In my experience they need to find somewhere they are happy and then they seem to spread out beyond where you would think they would be happy!
Thanks for visiting us tonight. I do believe in the power of human thought, because I was wondering how you were last night and thinking I must check your blog out.
Have now added you to my feeds for regular update!
Best for 2011

January 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Webber

Very nice plant! So great that you knew so much about it

January 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterfer

Hi Deb,
I'm not familiar with that plant that's not a fern or moss. I agree with you, I love the winter colors of it, too.

Thanks for your comment on my foliage post. I hope your rosemary continues to perk up outside.

January 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCorner Garden Sue

Hi Deb - thank you for featuring this absolutely fabulous fern/clubmoss. Have had to add to my wishlist even though this deviates from my gardening resolutions!

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura @ PatioPatch

What a beautiful plant, I love the filagree lace-like fronds. I'll have to try to remember it for future reference.

January 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanet/Plantaliscious

Thanks for the post. I have one of these acquired on sale just like you did. I was wondering how much shade and water itr need. After reading your post, I'll plant it in a moist spot (not many of those in my garden). It is a beautiful and unusual plant.

August 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMolly

I planted my first two about this time last year. Last summer was brutally hot and dry, but I did my best to keep these watered. Then comes this spring, and there are all these little stems shooting straight up with the little 'fronds' on top. I am in love!

April 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGinny Yatzkan

For about 10 years, I have had one growing in good potting soil (N. Florida, 8b) in a very thich, glazed pot--about 22" wide by about 11 " deep. It has filled the pot and the fronds drape gracefully (like lace) over the sides. New growth is as blue as any plant I've seen. I've given away several divisions, filling in the holes with fresh dirt, which the plant quickly fills.. Usually I grow an accent plant in the center. No applied water or fertilizer. Fall color is a gorgeous purplish tint. I adore this primitive.

August 21, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterD. Marston

Surprise! When I put the name of this plant in the search engine after reading your post of 24th January 2016 your post here was the second on the list - you've become to 'go-to' place for information about this plant. I read that it needs humidity so it won't grow for me, but it does inspire me to search out some ferns that will tolerate my hot dry summer conditions. Thank you.

January 25, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

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