Ferns have captivated gardeners and plant enthusiasts for centuries with their timeless beauty and unique charm. As ancient plants that have stood the test of time, ferns bring a touch of elegance and lushness to any garden or indoor space. We talk more about gardening with ferns here.
Most ferns are not really difficult to grow in the modern home, but they will not tolerate neglect. Don’t allow the potting soil to dry out, and make sure the air remains humid.
There’s a bewildering choice of varieties. Nearly two thousand are suitable for growing indoors, but comparatively few are available commercially. The classical picture of a fern is a rosette of much divided, arching leaves but there are also ferns with spear-shaped leaves, holly-like leaflets, and button-like leaflets.
There’s also a wide choice of ways to display your collection. Many of them are ideal for a hanging basket and some, such as Boston Fern and Bird’s Nest Fern, are large enough and bold enough to display as specimen plants on their own.
The Evolution of Ferns
Ferns have an intriguing evolutionary history that spans hundreds of millions of years. These fascinating plants have been around for much longer than most of the familiar houseplants we encounter today. In fact, they appeared on Earth even before the dinosaurs roamed the planet!
Imagine the ancient world, covered in lush greenery. During this time, ferns began to evolve and adapt to life on land. They originated from ancestors that lived in water, gradually transitioning to terrestrial environments. This shift allowed them to explore new habitats and thrive in diverse ecosystems.
How Do Ferns Differ From Other Plants
One of the most obvious differences between ferns and other houseplants is their foliage. Fern leaves, also known as fronds, have a distinctive feathery or lacy appearance.
Another interesting difference is that ferns obtain water with specialized structures on their leaves called “hairs.” These help them absorb moisture from the air, allowing them to flourish in environments with high humidity.
The way ferns reproduce also distinguishes them from many other houseplants. Ferns reproduce through spores instead of seeds.
The Most Beautiful Ferns to Grow
Ferns exhibit an array of breathtaking forms, textures, and colors that add drama and interest to any garden. Each possesses its own unique beauty, so you won’t have any problem finding the ones that fit your personal style and garden design.
Best Ferns to Grow Indoors
Bringing the beauty of ferns indoors allows you to create a soothing and green oasis within your home. The most beautiful ferns bring a touch of greenery and elegance to indoor spaces.
Some of the most beautiful ferns to grow indoors include:
1. Tricolor Fern
Tricolor Ferns, or Pteris quadriaurita ‘Tricolor,’ are a visually striking fern cultivar highly regarded for its unique foliage and vibrant colors.
Its fronds are composed of delicate leaflets that display a captivating blend of colors. These colorful ferns are a combination of green, cream, and pink hues, creating a tricolor effect that gives the fern its name.
2. Rowerii Fern
Rowerii Ferns, or Pteris cretica ‘Rowerii,’ are popular fern cultivar admired for their distinctive foliage.
The fronds are composed of slender, arching leaflets that emerge in a vibrant green color. What sets this fern apart is the unique variegation on its foliage, with striking shades of silver and white along the edges of the leaflets.
3. Rosy Maidenhair Fern
Rosy Maidenhair Ferns, or Adiantum tenerum ‘Scutum Roseum,’ are considered one of the most beautiful ferns for its graceful appearance.
The fronds are comprised of delicate, feathery leaflets that emerge in a fresh green color, maturing to a beautiful rosy pink hue. The distinctive coloration of its foliage sets it apart from other ferns.
4. Silver Lace Fern
Silver Lace Ferns, or Pteris ensiformis ‘Evergemiensis,’ are cherished for their delicate, lacy foliage and distinctive variegation.
The fronds feature intricately cut leaflets that give the plant a lace-like appearance. The foliage displays a striking variegation of silver-white and green, creating a beautiful contrast.
5. Weeping Maidenhair Fern
Weeping Maidenhair Ferns, or Adiantum tenerum, are delicate and graceful plants. These evergreen ferns are characterized by lacy, feathery fronds that cascade in a weeping fashion, creating a soft and flowing appearance.
The foliage is a vibrant shade of green, and each leaflet is intricately divided, giving it a delicate and airy texture.
6. Silver Lady Fern
Silver Lady Ferns (Blechnum gibbum) feature delicate, arching fronds with a beautiful silver-gray coloration, giving them an elegant appearance. The fronds grow in a rosette form, creating a compact and rounded shape.
Care tips for growing ferns indoors:
The Best Ferns to Grow in Your Garden
Ferns are well-suited to garden landscapes, adding texture and depth to garden beds. Ferns grow in a wide range of difficult growing conditions, such as shaded areas, woodland gardens, and alongside other moisture-loving plants.
When planning your modern fern garden, choose specimens according to your growing zone and climate. We’ve divided the best ferns to grow in your garden outdoors by those for temperate climates and those for warmer climates.
Best Ferns for Temperate Climate Gardens
The following ferns are best for gardens in temperate climates.
1. Japanese Painted Fern, Athyrium Niponicum.
This fern is particularly beautiful. Japanese Painted Ferns have a silver tint to the leaves, and the fronds are made particularly vibrant by sunlight, which makes it such a shame that it only grows successfully in full shade!
These ferns reach a mature height of around 12 to 18 inches and form a compact clump. They thrive in partial to full shade in damp ground. They prefer cool to moderate climates and withstand mild frosts.
2. Hart’s Tongue Fern
Hart’s Tongue Ferns (Asplenium scolopendrium) are native to Europe, including the British Isles and Mediterranean region. They form a dense bouquet of arching, leathery, deep green fronds with frilled edges.
Hart’s tongue ferns prefer partial to full shade and are sensitive to sunlight. They also prefer moist, well-drained soil, but they’re adaptable to a wide range of moisture conditions.
Hart’s tongue ferns prefer a cool to moderate climate and are generally hardy in USDA zones 5-9.
3. Ostrich Fern
Ostrich Ferns, or Matteuccia struthiopteris, (sometimes more descriptively known as ‘Shuttlecock Ferns’), feature huge erect rosettes and an outer layer of bright green fronds enclosing smaller brown fronds. They also bear non-edible cream-colored fruit in the summer and reach a height of 3 to 6 feet tall.
Ostrich Ferns prefer to grow in partial to full shade in damp soils. They’re best suited for water or pond based gardens. They prefer an acidic soil and extremely wet conditions in partial shade.
4. Soft Shield Fern
Soft Shield Ferns, or Polystichum setiferum, are native to Europe and found in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.
These ferns are known for a soft, delicate appearance and finely divided fronds that give them a lacy texture. The fronds are a rich, dark green color and grow up to 2 to 3 feet tall.
Soft Shield Ferns prefer partial to full shade, as well as moist, well-drained soil. They’re adaptable and tolerate both cool and moderately warm climates.
5. Himalayan Maidenhair Fern
Himalayan Maidenhair Ferns (Adiantum venustum) feature delicate, lacy fronds that are vibrant green and have a fan-like appearance.
The fronds are composed of small, rounded leaflets that give them a feathery texture. It typically grows to about 12 to 18 inches.
This fern prefers a partially shaded location, with moist, well-drained soil in cool to moderate climates. It’s hardy in USDA zones 5-8.
6. Hay-Scented Fern
Hay-Scented Ferns (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) are native to eastern North America. They have
finely textured, feathery fronds that have a light green color. The fronds emit a pleasant hay-like fragrance when crushed, giving the fern its common name. This fern reaches a mature height of 1 to 3 feet.
It prefers moist soil and does well in a wide range of temperatures. It’s known for its ability to grow in both sun and shade.
7. Royal Fern
Royal Ferns (Osmunda regalis) are native to various regions around the world, including North America.
The fronds are large and elegant and reach a mature height of 3 to 6 feet. The foliage is deep green with a distinctive lacy appearance.
One distinguishing feature of the Royal Fern is the spore-producing structures at the tips of the fronds. These structures, known as sporangia, are a rusty-brown color and provide visual interest to the plant.
Royal Ferns prefer boggy conditions and partial to full shade and tolerate a wide range of temperatures.
Best Fern Varieties for Subtropical and Tropical Climate Gardens
For those in subtropical or tropical climates, the following ferns will perform well in the garden.
1. Soft Tree Fern
The first tree to make it onto our list, with the potential to reach about six meters tall, Soft Tree Fern, or Dicksonia antarctica, has a brown, fibrous trunk and broad, arching deep-green fronds.
Soft Tree Ferns have large, arching fronds that emerge from a central trunk-like structure called a caudex. The fronds are feathery and dark green, with a topical appearance. At maturity, Soft Tree Ferns reach an impressive height of 10 to 20 feet with a spread of about 6 to 10 feet.
Plant in a shady position, preferably under other deciduous trees. Ensure the stem remains well watered in the summer season but avoid watering the crown in winter as this will increase the likelihood of frost damage.
Plant in an acidic, loamy soil, and ensure that it’s not too exposed. In colder regions, stuff the crown with straw in winter to protect it from frost.
2. Boston Fern
Nephrolepis exaltata, commonly known as Boston Ferns, are native to Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Boston ferns feature graceful, arching fronds that are pinnately compound, with numerous leaflets arranged along the stem. The mature height of the Boston fern reaches up to 2 to 3 feet.
It thrives in bright, indirect light but tolerates partial shade. Boston ferns prefer consistently moist soil, high humidity, and moderate to warm temperatures.
3. Moa Fern
Moa Ferns (Psilotum nudum) are a unique fern-like plant that belongs to a primitive group of plants called the Psilotaceae. It’s native to various regions around the world, including parts of Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. In the U.S., it’s found in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and Hawaii.
Moa Ferns are deciduous, and its foliage consists of small, scale-like leaves that are arranged in whorls along the stems. The color of the foliage is typically pale green to yellowish.
One distinguishing characteristic of the Moa Fern is its lack of true roots, as it relies on mycorrhizal fungi for nutrient absorption. It has slender, branching stems that reaches a mature height of around 1 to 3 feet. The spread size of the Moa Fern varies, as it tends to form clumps or colonies through creeping rhizomes.
Optimal conditions for growing the Moa Fern include bright indirect light or partial shade. It prefers moist environments, and warm to tropical temperatures.
4. Sensitive Fern
Sensitive Ferns (Onoclea sensibilis) are native to the U.S. and found primarily in the eastern and central parts of the country.
It has unique fronds with of two types of leaflets: sterile leaflets and fertile leaflets.
The sterile leaflets are broad and light green in color, while the fertile leaflets are narrower and contain spore-producing structures. This fern typically reaches a mature height of 1 to 3 feet and forms spreading clumps.
Sensitive Ferns prefer partial to full shade and moist soil. It prefers acidic to neutral pH soil and tolerates a range of climates, including both cool temperate regions and warmer subtropical areas.
5. Miniature Tree Fern
Miniature Tree Ferns, or Blechnum gibbum, are native to tropical and subtropical regions, including Southeast Asia, Polynesia, and the Pacific Islands. This evergreen fern is characterized by its compact and symmetrical growth habit, with fronds that emerge from a central trunk-like structure, resembling a miniature tree.
The fronds are composed of numerous small leaflets that give the foliage a delicate and feathery appearance. The fronds are a vibrant green, and the Miniature Tree Fern typically reaches a mature height of around 1 to 2 feet.
This fern prefers in filtered or indirect light conditions, as direct sunlight scorches the foliage. It requires consistently moist but well-draining soil and high humidity levels. It thrives in warm and tropical climates, with ideal ranges between 65°F-80°F.
6. Bird’s Nest Fern
Bird’s Nest Ferns, or Asplenium nidus, are native to tropical regions. They’re characterized by large, glossy, and wavy fronds that emerge from a central rosette resembling a bird’s nest, hence the name. The fronds reach a mature height of about 2 to 4 feet. The foliage is a vibrant, bright green color, adding a tropical touch to any space.
One of its distinguishing characteristics is the absence of typical leaflets, as the fronds are undivided, creating a more uniform appearance.
Bird’s Nest Ferns thrive in bright, indirect light conditions. It prefers consistently moist soil and a warm and humid environment.
7. Squirrel’s Foot Fern
Squirrel’s Foot Ferns (Davallia trichomanoides) are native to tropical regions and known for unique and eye-catching foliage.
Its fronds are finely dissected, resembling a squirrel’s foot, hence the name. The foliage is a vibrant green color, and the plant reaches a mature height of about 8 to 12 inches, making excellent ground cover ferns.
Squirrel’s Foot Ferns thrive in bright, indirect light and prefer moist soil and high humidity. It prefers a warm climate, away from cold drafts.
How to Grow Ferns
Growing ferns successfully requires attention to their specific needs and preferences. Understanding where to plant them, how to care for them, and the ideal growing conditions will set the stage for their flourishing.
Ferns generally prefer filtered or dappled shade, moist but well-draining soil, and regular watering to maintain adequate moisture levels.
Ferns can be rewarding and relatively easy to grow if you provide them with the right conditions.
Here are some essential tips on how to grow ferns successfully:
Where to Plant Ferns
When choosing a spot for your ferns, keep in mind that most ferns prefer indirect or filtered light. They thrive in areas with moderate to high humidity, so consider placing indoor container ferns in bathrooms, kitchens, or near humidifiers.
Avoid placing ferns in direct sunlight, as it scorches their delicate fronds. Choose locations with good air circulation to prevent stagnant air, which leads to fungal issues.
Some tips on caring for outdoor ferns:
How to Care for Ferns
Caring for ferns involves a few important considerations:
Use well-draining soil that is rich in organic matter. A mix of peat moss, perlite, and compost provides an ideal growing medium for potted ferns.
In outdoor gardens, amend the soil with compost to improve its fertility and drainage.
Provide consistently moist soil, but don’t let them sit in waterlogged conditions. Water thoroughly when the top inch of soil feels slightly dry to the touch.
Most ferns appreciate higher humidity levels. If your home has dry air, increase humidity around the ferns by misting them regularly or placing a humidifier nearby.
Most ferns prefer moderate temperatures between 60-75°F. Avoid exposure to drafts and extreme temperature fluctuations.
Ferns generally have modest nutritional needs, but they benefit from occasional feeding. Use a balanced, water-soluble fertilizer formulated for houseplants.
When to Cut Back Ferns:
Ferns don’t require regular pruning like some other plants, but occasionally you should remove dead or damaged fronds. Use clean and sharp pruners to make cuts at the base of the frond where it connects to the main plant.
How to Propagate Ferns
Propagate ferns with either division or spore propagation:
Divide ferns carefully by separating the rhizomes (underground stems) into smaller sections. Each section should have healthy fronds and roots. Plant the divided sections in suitable pots or garden areas with appropriate soil and conditions.
Spore propagation involves collecting spores from mature fern fronds and sowing them in a suitable growing medium.
This method requires patience and attention to detail, as it involves providing the spores with specific temperature, humidity, and light conditions for successful germination and growth.
Low-Maintenance Ferns to Liven Up Your Shade Garden
With their ability to tolerate various growing conditions and exhibit natural resilience, ferns offer an attractive solution for those with busy lifestyles or less time to dedicate to gardening.
Plants That Grow Well With Ferns
Complementing ferns with compatible companion plants enhances their visual impact and creates harmonious plant communities. Combine low-growing Japanese holly fern or other ground cover fern with colorful shade-loving plants with high moisture requires for an appeal modern fern garden space.
Some suitable plants to grow alongside ferns in temperate climates include:
- Bleeding Heart (Dicentra)
- Coral Bells (Heucheras)
- Leopard plant (Ligularia)
In subtropical or tropical regions, consider:
- Bird of Paradise
- Elephant ears (Colocasia)
- Hardy hibiscus
- Ornamental bananas
Ferns offer a world of botanical wonders, from their ancient origins to their striking variety of forms, textures, and colors.
By understanding their unique characteristics, cultivating the right ferns for specific environments, and providing appropriate care, gardeners can unlock the beauty and tranquility that these remarkable plants bring.
With their versatility and adaptability, ferns can find a place in any garden, adding a touch of elegance and a connection to the ancient world of plants.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on Sep 1, 2012, and has been completely updated.