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Ferns are among the oldest living plants on Earth, having appeared over 350 million years ago, long before the dinosaurs. Despite their ancient age, they make gorgeous houseplants, adding elegance, rich green hues, and interesting texture to any indoor environment. Discover a few ferns for your indoor garden!
Ferns existed before there were flowering plants, which is why they don’t blossom or make seeds, reproducing by tiny, dust-like spores instead. The brown spots you see on the underside of the fronds in spring are the spore cases called sori, each one full of spores. When they are ripe they pop open and catapult the spores from the plant in hopes of finding a good place to grow. Some varieties of ferns can also reproduce by underground rhizomes.
These spore cases each hold thousands of fern spores.
Ferns are spectacular plants in the shade garden, but they also make for great houseplants. Their soothing greenery adds a bit of yin to our yang. To ensure success with ferns, remember that most are native to tropical regions where they grow as understory plants.
They need warm temperatures and will be scorched by direct sun. Most do best in an east or north window.
They love high humidity. Plant them in potting soil that is high in organic matter, keeping the soil evenly moist but not soggy, and water using room temperature water. If they are kept too dry, the edges of the fern’s fronds will turn brown and crispy! Chlorinated water will also cause brown leaves.
Ferns aren’t heavy feeders. Give them a half-strength dose of balanced houseplant fertilizer during active growth. Usually twice a year does it, once in spring and again in midsummer.
Keeping Ferns Moist
Droopy yellow leaves are often a sign that they could use more humidity. To add moisture to the air try growing them on a pebble tray, mist the foliage often, or add a humidifier to the room.
Grow them in the bathroom or over the kitchen sink where the air is moist.
You can also double pot them by placing their container into a larger pot and filling the space between with moist sphagnum moss. As the moisture in the moss evaporates it will raise the humidity around the plant. Repot your fern in fresh soil every two years in the spring.
Types of Ferns for Your Home
Boston Fern (Nephrolepsis exalta) was a popular Victorian parlor plant. Every house had at least one. Their graceful arching fronds practically cry out to be touched—but don’t do it! They are tender and will turn brown if overly handled.
Bostons are fast growers, so your plant will need to be divided yearly. If the roots are too densely packed, the center of the plant will die. When dividing, toss the dead center and divide and repot the living outer sections. Cut the foliage to the soil line and fresh, new growth will soon appear.
Remember ferns need high humidity (50 to 80%) so keep the soil moist and never let them dry out. It helps to mist the leaves, too. Place near kitchens and bathrooms for higher humidity or set on a tray of wet pebbles.
Bostons don’t produce spores, propagating by runners instead. You can root these runners to start more plants.
There are many new cultivars of Boston ferns that have wavy, curly, or twisted fronds. ‘Medusa’ has divided arching fronds. ‘Orlando’ is called a sword fern because of its upright fronds. ‘Fluffy Ruffle’ is a dwarf Boston, under 12 inches tall, with finely divided, double-leaved fronds. Dwarf ‘Sassy’ is small enough to fit in the tiniest apartment and the fronds on ‘Mini-Ruffle’ grow only 6-8 inches long.
Bird’s Nest Fern
Bird’s Nest Fern (Asplenium nidus) is not ferny-looking at all, with its thick, glossy, lance-shaped leaves sporting wavy edges that whorl around the center of the plant—forming the “nest”. Native to Hawaii, they are epiphytes, growing on the branches of trees where they catch rainwater and organic matter in the center of the “nest.” Fronds can grow up to two feet long.
Staghorn Fern (Platycerium bifurcatum) is another epiphyte. Native to Australia, it grows on the bark or in the branches of trees. They can be grown in a container, but are usually displayed on a piece of wood or bark with the roots wrapped in sphagnum moss.
Staghorns have two types of leaves. The tough, green leaves are lobed and resemble antlers and the flat papery brown basal leaves anchor the plant.
To water, take your staghorn to the shower or tub and thoroughly soak it. Let it drain before rehanging.
Since they are not grown in soil, staghorns will need a monthly feeding with half-strength fertilizer. Established plants produce “pups” that can be cut off the parent plant and rooted in moss.
Rabbit’s Foot Fern ( Davallia fejeensis) is my favorite fern. It has long, dark green, lacy fronds and fuzzy gray-brown rhizomes that creep over the soil and out over the edge of the pot. Very cool!
Mine spends summers on the shady screened porch and winters indoors in a north window. I keep the soil barely moist and only feed it twice a year.
My rabbit’s foot fern was a gift. It loves spending the summer on our porch but is back inside for the winter.
Rabbit’s foot is one fern that likes to be potbound and I have not repotted mine in years. If a piece of the rhizome breaks off when you are repotting, pin it down on moist soil and it will eventually root and start sending out fronds.
My rabbit’s foot fern is creeping out of its pot and over the side.
There are other “footed” ferns that grow from hairy rhizomes including deer foot, kangaroo paw, caterpillar fern, bear paw, and squirrel foot. See more fun ferns!
More Ferns to Favor
Looking for a color other than green? How about Tricolor fern (Pteris quadriaurita tricolor) has bronze-red new growth, Variegated Brake Fern (Pteris ‘Albolineata’) has long narrow fronds variegated with silvery white. Silver Lace Fern (Pteris ensiformis) has finely cut fronds with white centers.