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The Houseplant Diaries: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Finicky Ferns

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The Houseplant Diaries: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Finicky Ferns

April 20, 2018

It all started off so well. My delta maidenhair fern was my pride and joy, its delicately drooping fronds hanging over my bathroom sink. Then winter came, the radiator switched on, and my fern’s leaves turned from papery to crispy. Before long, it was resigned to the compost heap.

What now?

Photography by Mimi Giboin for Gardenista.

Exhibit A: Maidenhair Fern

If you dare grow a maidenhair fern (Adiantum raddianum), a humid bathroom makes a nice home. In theory.
Above: If you dare grow a maidenhair fern (Adiantum raddianum), a humid bathroom makes a nice home. In theory.

A couple more maidenhairs and a Boston fern went the same sad way as my first fern, despite manic misting sessions and experiments with watering more or less.

Exhibit B: Boston Fern

Is there something familiar about this scene? What could possibly go wrong for this Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata bostoniensis)?
Above: Is there something familiar about this scene? What could possibly go wrong for this Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata bostoniensis)?

Then came an ill-advised experiment: putting my ferns outside in summer (it turned out my “shady corner” was a lot less shady than I thought).

Indoor Plants, Outdoors

Beware, even a covered porch may have spots that get an hour or more of direct sunlight every day.
Above: Beware, even a covered porch may have spots that get an hour or more of direct sunlight every day.

Having had my fingers (or rather my fronds) burned too many times, I decided I just wasn’t a “fern person,” and threw my energies into raising other houseplants.

Then, as often happens, a trip to the supermarket turned into a plant buying mission. Before I could stop myself, there was a fern in my shopping basket. The plant in question was Didymochlaena truncatula, the mahogany (or tree) maidenhair fern. It’s a little less refined than the delta maidenhair, but it has a reddish tinge to the foliage as it emerges that’s most attractive.

Can I keep my new fern (or any fern, for that matter) alive? I sought advice from two UK fern experts: Angela Tandy, director at fern specialists Fibrex Nurseries near Stratford-upon-Avon, and Dick Hayward, fern specialist and grower for Bowdens Nurseries in Okehampton, Devon and have so far managed to avoid another murder. Added bonus: The experts helped me compile a list of six easy-to-grow ferns that even a beginner can keep alive as houseplants.

6 Easy Ferns

See more growing tips for a lemon button fern at Best Houseplants: 9 Indoor Plants for Low Light.
Above: See more growing tips for a lemon button fern at Best Houseplants: 9 Indoor Plants for Low Light.

Lemon Button Fern: The lemon button fern (aka the erect sword fern), is one of the most forgiving of the fern clan, and although Nephrolepis cordifolia is a relative of the Boston fern, it’s much more compact, reaching 12 inches tall, and somewhat easier to grow. No, you can’t stick it beside a heating vent and cross your fingers, but provided you keep it moderately moist, it won’t keel over at the first moment the humidity drops below 75 percent, and is ideal for really dark spots in your home that other ferns may find too gloomy. The lemon bit of the common name comes from the faint lemony scent of the foliage, which is a plus. As it’s smaller than many of the popular indoor ferns, it’s also a better candidate for a terrarium than some of the bigger types, if you really have a problem with dry air in your home. You’ll usually find this plant in the form of its variety ‘Duffii’.

Golden Polypody: Phlebodium aureum seems to be ubiquitous now, with the variety ‘Blue Star’ often showing up on supermarket houseplant racks here in the UK, but it’s often sold with very poor labeling, to the extent that many people don’t even realize they have bought a fern (its gray-blue foliage is unusual in the fern world). This fern is epiphytic in the wild, where it grows in tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas, which means it grows not on the ground but anchored in trees. It likes to be moist but well-drained and is accustomed to occasional dry spells, so never leave water hanging around in the bottom of the pot. When repotting, add some fine grade orchid bark to the compost.

Asplenium bulbiferum (at left) is commonly known as mother spleenwort fern and also is a good choice for a shade garden.
Above: Asplenium bulbiferum (at left) is commonly known as mother spleenwort fern and also is a good choice for a shade garden.

Mother Spleenwort: This fern is also known as hen and chickens for its curious habit of growing baby plants along its fronds. The foliage of Asplenium bulbiferum looks a bit like carrot tops, so it’s not the most refined of the ferns; it’s a curious plant that’s fun and will survive short periods of drier soil, particularly in winter when it prefers to be just kept a couple of notches away from dry. (Fascinating fact: The young growth tips are a traditional food of the Maoris in New Zealand, where it’s a native.) Look out for the glossy-leaved hybrid ‘Maori Princess’, a cross between A. oblongifolium and A. bulbiferum that grows slowly: Dick Hayward recommends ‘Austral Gem’ aka ‘Parvati’, a cross between A. dimorphum and A. difforme that is sterile, so you don’t have baby plants self-seeding into neighboring pots. Angela Tandy says A. daucifolium, the Mauritius spleenwort, is also worth looking out for.

Japanese Holly Fern: Also known as fishtail fern, Cyrtomium falcatum is widely grown as an outdoor plant, but it does perfectly well indoors, and its glossy, leathery leaves can cope with the average levels of humidity found in most homes. This really is the fern to go for if you struggle with humidity and don’t want to risk losing your plant to crispiness within weeks. Tandy says this plant seeds everywhere in the glasshouses at her nursery, Fibrex, but this shouldn’t be a problem when it’s contained in a pot. This plant’s other huge bonus over many other ferns is it doesn’t shed leaves readily, so you won’t need to keep your Dustbuster on constant standby.

The great pretender. Asparagus ferns such as Asparagus densiflorus ‘Sprengeri’ aren’t true ferns.
Above: The great pretender. Asparagus ferns such as Asparagus densiflorus ‘Sprengeri’ aren’t true ferns.

Asparagus Ferns: If you’re a stickler for plant taxonomy, it’s important to say straightaway that this isn’t a bona fide fern. The so-called asparagus ferns are in fact all relatives of the asparagus in the vegetable patch (but don’t try eating them), although they do possess the feathery foliage that makes us associate them with the true ferns.

Asparagus ferns’ roots emerge from a clump of bulbs.
Above: Asparagus ferns’ roots emerge from a clump of bulbs.

There are four widely available types: Asparagus setaceus, the common asparagus fern, the Asparagus densiflorus ‘Sprengeri’ group or emerald feather, A. falcatus the sickle thor, and Asparagus densiflorus ‘Myersii’, the plume asparagus or foxtail fern. These all make great houseplants, easy to grow for anyone who wants lacy foliage without the extra stress of constant misting.

They will cope with the average humidity of most homes, and the odd lapse in the watering regime. But do watch out when handling asparagus ferns as they often have tiny spines along the stem which are very painful if pricked. Like ferns, they dislike direct sunlight, so keep them away from south-facing windowsills, and in winter they will only need occasional watering.

Lacy Tree Fern: If you want something really big to make a statement, the lacy tree fern (Cyathea cooperi) is the one for you, Tandy says. Tree ferns can go outdoors in the summer but need to be in frost-free conditions at a minimum over the winter. They require plenty of bright light, but avoid direct sunlight; keep them moist but don’t water directly onto the crown as this can result in rot setting in. Check out Pistils Nursery’s guide to growing tree ferns indoors for more.

Fern family, dappled sunlight, all is well.
Above: Fern family, dappled sunlight, all is well.

As for my mahogany maidenhair fern? So far, my Didymochlaena truncatula is hardier and happier than my late, lamented delta maidenhair fern. With misting, dappled light, and a few humid days spent outdoors, I have high hopes—for the next few months, at least.

Need more houseplant help? See our curated growing guides for our favorites at Houseplants 101, including Asparagus Ferns 101, Orchids 101, and Prayer Plants. Don’t miss:

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