Between Two (Sword) Ferns: Why Plant Species Matter

Author: Peter Ciepluch

As landscape architects, our jobs are to design and plan outdoor spaces. But our work is about so much more than just making sure a landscape looks good. Yes, that part’s important, but we’re far more interested in creating great experiences, spaces that can be enjoyed by everyone (including animals!). That’s why we spend most of our time at the “drawing table,” mapping out every detail from gardens and paving to drainage and stormwater management. And while we don’t build or plant anything, we are responsible for collaborating with contractors to ensure that what was approved is what actually gets installed.

Routine construction observation led us to take a closer look at the sword ferns.

Routine construction observation led us to take a closer look at the sword ferns.

Recently, while doing routine construction observation at one of our sites, we got a suspicion about the ferns. Were these the native sword ferns (Nephrolepis exaltata) we had laid out in our plans, or their invasive cousins: the Chinese sword ferns (Nephrolepis cordifolia)? We dug into our investigation (literally) and, sure enough, it was the invasive species.

But let’s back up for a minute. What difference does it make? It’s a little-known fact that landscape architecture is a highly regulated field, which requires us to go through a rigorous licensing process. Why? Because we’re trusted to protect the health, safety and welfare of, not only people, but entire ecosystems. We’re trained to think about the interconnectedness of everything within (and outside) our plans. How will an area’s climate affect a certain plant? How will that plant, as a result, affect the creatures that live there? And so on, and so forth.

So, going back to our ferns, it actually did matter which one got planted. The Chinese sword fern, which can be identified by the ball-like “tubers” in its roots, is a Class I invasive species—meaning it can drive out native plants and damage the ecological structure of the area. On the other hand, native sword ferns are a great choice for landscapes because they can withstand droughts, thrive in conditions from sunny to shady, and fill in relatively quickly.

The invasive Chinese sword fern can be identified by the ball-like tubers in its roots.

The invasive Chinese sword fern can be identified by the ball-like tubers in its roots.

The main takeaway from this tale of two ferns is that every design decision we make has a purpose. So the next time you stroll through your neighborhood, take your kids to the park, or spend an afternoon by the pool, take a moment to really notice your surroundings. They were chosen especially for you.