In one word, ferns are prehistoric. This beautiful deep green, ground cover and now cultivated as indoor plant and ornamentals and has been around for 350 million years. This means that they have been surviving on the earth way before any life form was breathing.
While that alone is an interesting fact, we will focus more on what makes ferns a sought after indoor and outdoor plant. For sure, you might have asked the question if ferns can be used as houseplants as we often see them in the wild.
If you intend to have one at home, here are all the things you need to know about the types of ferns.
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How many varieties of ferns are there?
There are over 9000 species of these non-flowering plants with fully developed roots/stem/complex leaves and spores for reproduction. (Wikipedia).
Below are similarities/differences/facts about ferns!
The obvious similarity between various plants:
Regardless of all distinguishing factors that we will handle next, all conifers, flowering, and fern plants have veins. Vascular system, just like in the ‘human body’, transports water and nutrients to the entire plant organs. (Thoughtco.com).
The ferns have stood out for generations;
- Ferns need water for reproduction, like ‘humans need air to breath’.
Therefore, can only tolerate dry/hostile conditions, of which it may risk extinction.
- Defying all odds, ferns don’t have seeds or flowers, rather they reproduce through spores on their fronds. Fertile fronds-fronds with spores. (Wikipedia)
- Fronds hold the pinnae, with some pinnae, having the spores.
Enough with the characteristics,
We now look at the fern facts below.
‘Fern-facts ‘-fun facts!
- You may regard them aliens, but don’t judge this book yet! They are the simplest plants.
- Ferns reproduce both sexual and asexual.
- Spores come in green/yellow/black/brown/orange/red colors. Contain DNA for a newborn fern.
- Sporangia in the visible dark-brown structure on the bottom of fronds, covering the spores.
- During fertilization, a sperm will swim through water to reach the egg and fertilize it.
- Ferns love damp shaded areas because this is where water for fertilization is.
The most intriguing fact is that-
- ‘After fertilization, the egg develops into spore which produces new fern.
This new plant will depend on the parent plant until it becomes mature/independent enough. After which the parent plant dies.’(Thoughco.com)
How do I identify my fern?
You are probably wondering how to pick out your favorite fern for the garden or bathroom. This is common as most of the species will get you confused at first. But come to think of it, it’s easier to identify your fern if you narrow your focus to the various zones of growth;
Key factors towards identifying your fern:
- How is the stem? Various ferns have different stem structure.
- How is leaf-shaped? Some have triangular-shaped leaves, others flat, etcetera.
- What is the leaf arrangement? You may notice that some are arranged side by side along the stems and others contrary.
- Where is the spore located? Some ferns have spores for reproduction, but are all the spores all located at the bottom of the leaves? Find out this in the seek to identify your fern.
Some of the most popular species are:
- Bird’s Nest
Short Ferns for the Landscape: Grow Under Two Feet Tall
A look at three ferns that stay under two feet tall in a landscape.
Ferns can really make a landscape come alive with their billowy airy look and feel. These plants make great features under trees and as borders in a garden spot.
No matter where they are placed, they will definitely make a statement, and aren’t as hard to grow as one may think. These three will stay smaller than most and be great to fill in areas that are bare in the landscape.
Eastern Hay-scented Fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula)
The Eastern Hay-scented Fern, or Dennstaedtia punctilobula, gets to a height of up to 18 inches and spreads to two feet wide. It has a unique aroma in that it smells like newly cut hay.
It is evergreen and has no noticeable blooms. It will do best in partial to full shade, and soil that has a bit of acidity to it. There is lacy foliage and nice bright green fronds. If one wants to propagate this particular fern, one will need to split the rhizomes.
Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis)
The Sensitive Fern, or Onoclea sensibilis, grows to a height of up to 23 inches, just under two feet tall with the same spread. It spreads well and typically is a low maintenance fern. It is a hardy plant despite its name of “sensitive.”
It was named sensitive because of the fronds that wither upon a frost. This fern does best in full sun to partial shade, with soil that is a bit acidic. If this fern needs to be propagated it will need to have the rhizomes divided, preferably in the spring.
New York Fern (Parathelypteris noveboracensis)
The New York Fern, or Thelypteris noveboracensis, reaches a height of two feet tall and spreads to two feet wide as well. It is a slow grower but has an easier transplant than most ferns. It has gently tapered fronds that are typically seen in moist woody environments. This is one of the deer resistant ferns. Plant this one in full to partial shade and a bit acidic soil. This one can also handle a neutral pH soil. To divide and propagate this fern, just separate the root ball.
These three selections are going to give you completely different focal points in the landscape, where the eye is drawn to the fragile nature of a fern. It is a good plant to put between spots in the garden where one would like foliage to accent a flower or decorative plant.
14 Types of Outdoor Ferns:
Unlike other plants, ferns are not propagated by seeds nor stem cuttings but through the spores in their leaves. Once you master the care needs of ferns, raising them outdoors will be easy-breezy.
Here are some outdoor ferns that will definitely add deep greens to your garden.
1. Himalayan maidenhair fern (Adiantum venustum):
It is a deciduous evergreen known for its broad, triangle shaped fronds adorned with small, fan-shaped segments.
It is at its peak bloom from late winter throughout spring. Its color changes from tinges of orange to dark green during spring. Its creeping habit makes it a perfect fit for shade gardens and underplanting.
How to identify:
- Delicate light green fronds.
- 22-38 cm tall. (Gardeners’ World.com).
- Evergreen leaves.
Tip: Always protect these types of ferns from strong winds.
2. Hart’s-tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium):
This one is distinguishable for its rosette-like, arching and strap-shaped fronds in dark green hues and brown stripes in the undersides.
It has one of the most striking fronds with its undivided appearance. It is also considerably hardy and will stay lush green year-round, even during the winter.
How to identify:
- Always green-evergreen plants.
- 45-60 cm tall. (Gardeners’ World.com).
- Have glossy and strong fronds.
Tip: when going for these ferns for your garden, you have to dedicate time to groom a lot during spring.
3. Hart’s-tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium):
In general, it is the group where crested ferns are clustered including the aforementioned type.
At a distance, they resemble water crests or lattice because of their heavily crested edges. They enjoy alkaline soils and low light locations. They are perfect for pavements and walkways.
How to Identify:
- Evergreen plants.
- Young plants have unique wavy edges.
- 30-60 cm tall.
Tip: crinkle edges on the leaves and wavy appearance makes the types of ferns so attractive to add on your garden décor.
4. Deciduous painted Japanese fern (Athyrium niponicum):
It is a rare colored fern that stands out of other fern types because of its whimsical flair in a tropical plant.
They are considered as variegated ferns because of their silver gray-green foliage and purple veins. Adding to its overall compelling appearance is its upward-arching, triangle fronds.
How to identify:
- Delicate silver and burgundy fronds.
- Prostrate growth- never upright.
- 30-38cm tall.
Tips: There silver fronds are the attractive, therefore better choice for you. If you settle on these ferns today, then ensure the plant gets plenty of moisture for better growth. (Gardeners’ World.com).
5. Autumn Fern/Dryopteris erythrosora:
They get their name from their young fronds with a color mix of copper red and gold; the colors of autumn. It has a papery appearance and their growing season is during spring.
As they mature through summer, their color will turn into deep green. Unlike other ferns, it can grow in colder regions and is a popular cross plant for many cultivars including Brilliance.
How to identify:
- Have red new growth in the spring season- turns bronze and lastly green with time.
- Evergreen plant.
- Maximum -60cm tall.
6. The alpine wood fern (Dryopteris wallichiana):
This semi-evergreen is native to India and China. It is notable for its lancing fronds sprouting from an erect rhizome. It grows in bulky tufts like a shuttlecock.
In the spring, its fronds are yellow and its stems and midribs are brown-black in color. This one is winter hardy, making it a good outdoor fern. It can tolerate the winter frost.
As a matter of fact, the foliage becomes a darker green hue as it goes deep into winter. At mature phase, it will produce at least 60 fronds annually.
How to identify:
- Tall fronds- up to 90 cm high.
Tip: If you opt for this one, you need enough spacing for their tall fronds. Besides, plant them in groups on your compound.
7. The Shuttlecock fern/Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris):
It is one the tallest and most catchy fern types with lancing fronds that grow to up to five feet long. They grow in thick masses of compact fronds resembling vases.
It loves low light and shade. It requires infrequent watering and when you do, you have to pour it on the base.
- Bright green fronds.
- 1 to 1.5m tall.
Tips: in early spring, Ostrich fern will charm your garden being- ‘handsome plants ‘in spring. You need high humid conditions-moist soil. (Gardeners’ World.com).
8. Carrot fern (Onychium japonicum):
It is a fast-growing fern that is native to Japan and the rest of Asia. It produces carrot-like ferns with a lace texture and dark green hues.
It is drought-tolerant and thrives well in full sun to full shade. Its wiry stems will grow to up to 2ft only, making it an outdoor fern that is useful as ground cover and for underplanting. It can also be potted as houseplant during spring.
The name made up due to carrot top look alike foliage of the plant.
How to Identify:
- Finer fronds.
- 10-45 cm tall.
Tips: place Carrot top fern in the unheated greenhouse during winter-for better growth.
9. Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis):
It is considered as one of the largest European ferns known as an easy growing houseplant. It stands at 5ft and 2inches wide.
It produces compact, 13 pairs of leaflets at 3ft long. It loves acidic, damp soils and shady locations. Since they grow large, they are better as outdoor plants than houseplants.
How to identify:
- Deciduous fern.
- In autumn, foliage changes into bronze.
- Pale green fronds.
- 1.5m tall.
10. Japanese tassel fern (Polystichum polyblepharum):
Albeit their slow growth-rate, tassel ferns are robust growing when they are mature. It is an evergreen fern with a medium length, arching fronds.
It gets its name from its immature fronds that hang like tassels before gradually straightening up like arches. They are perfect as complementary ground cover for Japanese weeping maples.
- 45-60 cm tall.
- Evergreen and easy to grow in your garden.
11. Maidenhair fern (Adiantum):
This fern species is made up of more or less 250 fern types found in all continents of the world. Its native habitat is woodlands and they are perfect for tropical gardens.
They are known for their deep green, glossy foliage that blooms in peak during spring and their purple-red and black stalks. Young fronds are also attention-catchers with their green and pink contrast. It can tolerate mild frost.
They are easily recognizable with
- Uniquely short shaped stature compared to other outdoor ferns.
- Use spores for reproduction like the others.
12. Whisk Fern (Psilotum nudum):
This fern species is particularly famous in Japan but it is native in Africa, Oceania, Asia and the Americas.
It is distinguishable for its slender, chicken feet like stems and a compact growing habit that will make it look like egg whisker at mature phase. It grows in between rocks and enjoys warm, high humidity climates and moist soils.
How to identify:
- Unique thin stems.
- Stems look like chicken feet.
- Lack of vascular organs like the other ferns-distinguishing factor.
13. Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza):
This one typically sprouts out in the barks of forest trees. It gets its name from its subterranean stems that smell and taste like licorice.
It is native to North America and its licorice-tasting stem is used in traditional medicine as herbal remedy for colds, coughs and sore throats. It is dried for tea and used as raw snacks. It will thrive in tropical, damp climates.
How to identify:
- The stem is chewed and acts as a medicine for coughs and sore throat.
- Naturally, live in rocks/wood surfaces.
- Stem also is for brewing tea-licorice flavored.
Tip: You need to provide it mild temperature at home.
14. Eagle fern (Pteridium aquilinum):
It is also called as Eastern Bracken fern known for its triangle shaped stems. It is a highly adaptive fern and when left unchecked can be considered as invasive. It survives in temperate or subtropical climates.
How to Identify:
- unique triangular stems.
- Invasive species and promptly adapt to conditions.
- Stir-fried and dried fern are food ingredients.
Tips: Grow well in subtropical/temperate places with poor conditions.
15. Chinese Ladder Brake (Pteris vittata):
It is a pantropical fern native to Asia and Australia. It grows in valleys and riverbanks. It has deep green foliage with spores lined up along the pinna.
While it does offer good erosion control, it could become easily invasive when uncontrolled. It is usually used in industrial design especially in concrete infrastructures.
How to Identify:
- Triangle leaves.
- You will find them on limestone or between brick walls.
16. Giant fern (Angiopteris evecta):
It is dubbed as the tallest and largest tree fern in the world; hence, it is also called as the king fern. Its fronds can grow at a length of almost 20ft and at 5ft wide. It is perfect for outdoor tropical gardens as its slender stems only grow to up to 3ft.
The trick to establishing sturdy roots is to maintain moisture. It can tolerate full sun to full shade.
- You give it a warmer place, moist soil and small shade, and let it grow up.
- Its an invasive species-highly adapted to several conditions.
- It depends entirely on human conservation-spores and is not dependent on their growth.
17. Man fern (Dicksonia antarctica):
It is also called a soft tree fern and is relatively cold hardy. It is a dark evergreen notable for its stout yet erect rhizome enveloped in thick, fibrous roots.
On top of it are divided fronds formed like a rosette. Its dark green leaves have a waxy texture and are most compelling during spring. It is native to Australia (Tasmania) and it grows to up to four meters in height.
How to Identify:
- Trunk-compose decayed remains of previous grown parts.
- 15-16 ft. High- largest tree can go to 49 ft.
- Do well in dry /alkaline/acidic soils.
18. Silver fern (Cyathea dealbata):
It is native to New Zealand (and is actually one of the country’s national symbols). It gets its name from its dark green foliage with stunning silver undersides.
Its native niche is subcanopy forests. It thrives in moist, hummus soils during their young state but they can be transferred to less moist soils after they mature.
How to Identify the type of fern:
- You’ll find them in subcanopy forests- with wet/dry conditions.
Tip: The silvery leaves in the forest are used as tracks at night-to mark the way. You could replicate the same idea for your garden.
19. Tasmanian cup fern (Cyathea arborea):
It is also called as the Tasmanian cup fern. It is an evergreen that could grow above 9meters. It has unbranched stems and fronds that grow at a length of 3meters.
It is native to Asia, Africa and South America and is cultivated and later on harvested as ornamental tree. It is often found in roadside banks but can also be naturalized in woodland gardens. It can also be transplanted and grown as indoor plants.
How to Identify:
- 27 ft. Tall.
- Hard Trunk is 3-5 inches thick-soft on the inside.
- Rolled trunk for the young plant.
Types of Indoor Ferns:
Ferns are loved for their fronds as they look exotic yet elegant. At the same time, they are tricky to care for because each type has a definite set of care requirements.
If you are planning to keep one indoors, here are some indoor ferns you should check out.
1. Austral Gem Bird’s Nest fern (Asplenium dimorphum x difforme):
This one is an organic fern notable for its large, deep green, lancing foliage with jagged edges.
It loves a lot of moisture and could grow better outdoors in rainy and damp planting sites. But since its basic requirement is low light, it also makes a good indoor plant. It gets its name from growing trees, rock and moist soils.
How to Identify:
- Spear shaped fronds.
- Brown and wavy fronds.
- 2ft.Long leaves.
- Naturally rooted to trees on warm climate areas-for moisture and shade.
- Mature plant larger and needs more spacing.
- Larger leaflets make a visible attraction to your yard or office.
- When taming these wild types of ferns, provide high humidity/enough light/temperatures-13- 24 degrees Celsius. (House Plants Expert.com).
- If you’re pet fanatic-love this fern because it’s non-toxic to your pets.
2. Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata):
It is also called a sword fern and one of the most popular fern houseplants. Its basic care requirement is bright, indirect light, high humidity and moist, well-draining soil. It does not need fertilizer as it will die from it due to sensitivity. It thrives in warmer regions.
How to Identify:
- 3ft.Long fronds.
- Tough leaf stalks long enough-holds lots of leaves arranged side-ways.
- Pinnate leaflets.
- Grow in temperatures between-13 to 24 degrees Celsius.
- Like birds nest fern, your pets are safe with these types of ferns at home. In case your dog/cat eats it accidentally, no effect.
- Display in hanging basket-allow long leaves hang family. When mature, put in a pot.
- You may place a young plant next to a window opening in a pot.
- Nothing lasts right, but make these fronds greener is made easier. We recommend you add Epsom salts to the plant when the frond-color starts to fade.
- You may place in bathroom-for high humid conditions.
3. Cretan brake fern/Ribbon fern (Pteris cretica):
It is a bushy fern that produces long, sword-like leaves with a pale green inner color and deep green edges.
It is clustered on the types of ferns that are easy to grow, making it a good houseplant. It will thrive in tropical climates where shade is ample.
How to Identify:
- 1 to 2.5 ft. Tall.
- Temperature areas of 13-24 degrees Celsius.
- Come in different shapes and color-fronds.
- Have broad/slim green leaflets with a pale center.
- Always prune to save plant health- cut any dying fronds.
- If the young plant matures, become larger! Repot-move to a larger pot.
4. Delta Maidenhair ferns (Adiantum raddianum):
This one is actually one of the members of the Adiantum. Its natural habitat is coastal regions unique for their delicate, waxy, branching fronds and purple-black stalks. It requires bright, indirect light and high humidity planting sites.
How to Identify:
- 1.5 ft. Tall.
- Very Delicate species-desire consistent watering.
- Fronds are triangular- shaped.
- Light green small pinnate leaves.
- Black wiry stalks-steady upright plant appearance.
- Grow in temperatures- 13 to 24 degrees Celsius.
5. Rabbit’s foot fern (Davallia fejeensis):
It is a popular houseplant fern because it is easy to care for and they look beautiful in hanging baskets. It has a wire-like appearance and a trailing habit.
Its attractiveness is also because of its bushy and exotic appearance in a triangle shape arrangement (which they say resembles rabbit feet).
How to identify:
- 1-2 ft. Tall
- Temperatures of 15-24 degrees Celsius.
- Small, upright fronds fit on wiry stalks.
- Lace-like leaflets.
- Grow on trees or rock crevices.
Tip: You use a well-drained pot soil (enough humid) and regularly repot during spring.
6. Asparagus Fern (Asparagus aethiopicus):
There are three types of asparagus fern but the most common is the one fine, compact, needle-like leaves (which by the way is a skin irritant).
They can be invasive when left unchecked so they require regular pruning. And like other ferns, its basic care requirement is bright, indirect light.
- Grows in plenty of humid areas/rooms.
- Put in a pebble tray.
- Looks good in a basket hanging over your window.
- Remember to water the plant regularly and love the replenishment at home.
7. Horsetail fern (Equisetum):
It is the last surviving species of the Equisetum family. In spite of its name, it is actually deadly when ingested by horses.
It has short-stalked stems that look like a crossover between bamboo and tall grass. It is one of the oldest fern types (tracing back to the Paleozoic era) and can survive where most ferns can’t.
8. Cloverleaf fern:
This one grows everywhere and it is a known fact. It is great as ground cover and one of the few rare ferns considered as a complete plant in terms of structure (with roots, stem and leaves).
It gets its name from its four to five leaves. Finding a five-leaf clover leaf fern is associated with good luck.
9. Ancient fern:
They are often associated with tree ferns. It is the mother plant of all cultivars and it is as ancient as it could get. The fronds of ancient ferns are found at the apex of a fibrous trunk.
Unlike temperate ferns, ancient ferns grow directly from the rootstock. It can be a good indoor plant and it can tolerate colder climates.
10. Wire fern (lycophyte):
It is rather easy to identify this type of fern because its stems and leaves look like forks. As lycophytes, they are considered as fern allies but in general are not ferns. They are single-veined with dark green, waxy foliage.
11. Holly Fern/Japanese Holly Fern (Cyrtomium falcatum):
These ones are the perfect indoor ferns because they require low light or complete shade. It is the type of fern commonly found in zen garden designs. It is native to East Asia and it is practically pest and deer resistant.
12. Staghorn fern (Platycerium):
These ferns get their name from their peculiar looking foliage that resembles staghorn. These ones grow only in wood and other plants because they are epiphytes and cannot grow in soil.
It requires shade and high humidity, frequent watering and misting. As houseplants, they are used as family heirlooms because of their known longevity.
A general guide to caring for ferns indoors:
Caring for these houseplants isn’t rock science per se. Like a newborn, handle with care and sharpen the edges as they grow up.
You need to focus on three things;
Water: ensure you drain your pot adequately. Water the young fern regularly and effectively. Most ferns will need high humid areas, that’s the reason some thrive well in the bathroom(near your shower).
Temperature: a temperature of 70 degrees Celsius cool is not that bad for an indoor fern owner.
Lighting: we can’t emphasize enough on lighting. All plants need light and ferns are no different. However, they may be scorched if exposed to direct sunlight.
Beware of that!
Aquarium Fern Types:
Instead of sprouting in trees, rocks and in between pebbles, this one grows in water, either half-submerged or fully submerged in it.
1. Java fern (Microsorum pteropus, Leptochilus pteropus):
This one is a special type of fern as it can be grown in water (half-submerged or fully submerged). You may call it a houseplant provided that the aquarium where it is submerged is indoors.
It has three variants and you can distinguish them in terms of leaf shapes: lancing, needle-like and trident-shaped).
How to care for fern plant
Either indoors or outdoors, there are specific care requirements even for fern plants. They say that it is tricky to grow ferns but if you could master the following, nothing could go wrong with your fern garden.
Truth be told, in fern care, you only have to be wary of three things: humidity, temperature and soil requirements.
Ferns love high-humidity rooms and planting sites. If grown indoors, humidity must be enforced through air humidifiers. If it is not humid enough, you can use amendments like adding pebbles to the tray or misting the leaves every day.
The type of fern you plant or buy should follow a specific temperature requirement. But in general, they do not love super cold temperatures.
For tropical climates, ferns thrive at 15-21 degrees Celsius while ferns planted in more temperate climates survive in 10-16 degrees Celsius. Regardless, some are more cold-hardy than others and they can tolerate lower temperatures than these ranges. An example of this is the Japanese painted fern.
Ferns niche on light and moist forest soils with lots of organic matter. Putting the right compost will prevent waterlogging. If light hummus soil is not available, you can go for sandy substitutes as long as mulch will be added too.
As has been mentioned several times here, ferns thrive in low light, bright indirect light, and some types can tolerate partial to full sun. This is why it is always recommended to check the type of fern to plant first because each type has different light requirements.
There is no need to fertilize ferns as they will practically grow anywhere. Applying fertilizer might cause some types to die due to sensitivity.
While it is not that necessary, you can prune your ferns to encourage more robust growth. Cutting off yellowing or dead fronds during fall and winter will ensure healthier fronds in the next spring. Pruning will also allow you to see if the soil is soggy or waterlogged.
This can be done during spring but only if your rootstocks are spreading uncontrollably in the pot. For outdoor ferns, this could also be done to control the possible invasiveness of the fern in the garden.
This should be done regularly to ensure that enough moisture is supplied in the soil. Watering should only be done if the topsoil is very dry. If not, do not water the ferns yet. Misting every day in the base of the plant and its foliage will also help in maintaining moisture.
If there is one thing to conclude about ferns, it is how sturdy and flexible they are as plant species. They can be grown as trees, ground cover, beautiful outdoor and houseplants. While most concede that ferns are tricky to grow, what we have covered here proves otherwise.
As long as you know the basic care requirements of ferns, you can grow any type at any time. Do not be restricted by the temperature limits because some types are cold-hardy. You can never go wrong with ferns. They would not exist up to this day if they were not survivors.