Commonly thought of as a tropical plant, the fern is actually one of the most versatile commonly grown plants. Select the right type and you can grow a fern almost anywhere, both indoors and outside.
Choosing the right types of ferns can be daunting. Especially when there are so many different types of ferns on offer. This guide is designed to help you.
What is a Fern?
One of the oldest types of plants in the world, fern fossils have been discovered dating back to the late Devonian period. A vascular plant, there are over 10,560 different types of ferns. These range in height, spread, appearance and growth preference. While some have short lifespans others can live for almost a century.
One of the oldest plants, the fern provides fascinating foliage.
Unlike many other plants, the fern doesn’t flower. Instead the interest is provided by the foliage.
Evergreen types of ferns retain their color and interest throughout the year. They do not die back in the winter.
Deciduous varieties lose their foliage in the fall, before new growth emerges the following spring. A herbaceous fern not only dies back, but unlike the deciduous plant that leaves behind permanent woody stems, the herbaceous fern dies back to leave no visible trace. Be careful to mark where your herbaceous plants are to prevent accidently digging them up in the spring or late winter.
Finally, semi-evergreen cultivars, like deciduous plants, lose their foliage in the winter but not for as long. Enjoying only a short dormant period, this often occurs when the plants are exposed to certain weather conditions, such as unexpected cold snaps. In warmer or milder climates they may be evergreen.
General Fern Care Tips
In the right position most types of ferns are actually surprisingly low maintenance plants.
Most types of ferns do not like low temperatures. If you are growing indoors, the temperature should, ideally, remain consistently between 65 and 75 ℉. Most of the types of ferns on our list are hardy in USDA Zones 4 to 8. However you can also find varieties that are tolerant of conditions in USDA Zones 2 to 10.
Knowing how often to water houseplants can be difficult, but in general many types of ferns like a little more moisture than other houseplants. While some varieties are epiphytes or air plants, meaning that they don’t need to be planted in soil, others are happiest in a container filled with fresh soil. If you are growing a fern in a container, try to plant it in a plastic pot. These are better for retaining moisture than clay pots.
Never place your fern in direct sunlight, this can scorch the leaves or fronds. Indirect light positions are far better.
Regularly prune damaged or diseased fronds and treat infestations as soon as you notice them.
Finally, depending on the type, specimens growing as houseplants may require a little fertilization during the growing period.
Outside Care Tips
When planted outside, either in pots, planters or the ground, these plants are a great way to add layers to your planting schemes or soften hard edges.
Resilient plants, in the right position, make sure you do your research before purchasing a fern. The different fern varieties each have their own growing preferences and requirements. For example, some types of ferns are better at coping with drought or dry spells than others, while some prefer an acidic soil to a neutral or alkaline soil. Selecting the right plant for your area helps the plant to settle in and thrive. It also reduces the amount of work that you need to do.
After planting your fern, regularly water the soil. This is especially important during dry spells, or if the fronds start to droop or dry out.
Finally, as plants grow they may need to be divided. This rejuvenates the plant and also gives you new plants for free. As with many other plants, divisions are best made in early spring.
1 Boston Fern
One of the most popular types of ferns, the Boston fern is a reliable houseplant. Easy to care for, as long as they are kept cool and away from direct light, these plants quickly adapt and start to thrive. During the winter months humidity levels around most types of ferns need to be maintained. This is easily done either by placing them on a Humidity Tray or misting the foliage regularly.
The Boston fern looks particularly effective in a hanging basket, where its long fonds can drape elegantly down towards the ground. Outside the plants are hardy in USDA Zones 9 to 11. When planted in well draining soil, the Boston fern is an easy to grow, low maintenance addition to the garden or houseplant collection.
The Boston fern is a popular houseplant.
2 Staghorn Fern
A distinctive looking fern, a young Staghorn fern is an ideal houseplant. However, as they mature you may need to transplant it into an outdoor space. An epiphyte, or air plant, the Staghorn doesn’t need to be planted in the soil. In the wild the plants anchor themselves to trees or other structures, often growing in the shape of antlers. Many growers like to mount their Staghorn on a board and hang it from a wall.
Thriving in low or medium light, like many types of ferns, Staghorns love humidity. They are also prone to rotting if overwatered. Allow the plants to completely dry out before watering moderately again.
An air plant, Staghorns make for a truly interesting display.
3 Holly Fern
A low light loving plant, the Holly fern is ideal for dark parts of the garden where nothing else grows. Native to the eastern areas of the United States, depending on where it is planted, the tough leaves of the Holly fern can remain green and healthy long into the winter months.
As long as the soil is well draining, these types of ferns thrive with only partial light and little to no fertilizer. A great way to add interest to dark corners, you can also grow a Holly fern in a shady corner of your porch or in your home. If you are growing outdoors, specimens in pots may need to be protected if the winter temperatures become too cold. You can protect most plants either with a horticultural blanket or, if you are growing in a pot, by moving them indoors. Valibe Covers are made of breathable material, allowing fresh air and water to still reach your plants while protecting them from cold weather.
Many types of ferns thrive in shady positions.
4 Maidenhair Fern
The Maindenhair’s feathery fronds are a great way to add soft interest to a landscape or home. Delicate to look at, despite the airy appearance of the Maidenhair fern this is a surprisingly resilient option.
Best planted in a group, either in the garden or in containers, you can also grow the Maidenhair as a houseplant. Depending on the variety, these types of ferns are hardy in USDA Zones 5 to 10. Loving heat and humidity as well as moist, well draining soil, Maidenhair plants are ideal for a shady spot. If you are growing your Maidenhair fern in a pot, don’t repot it too often. These plants like things on the snug side.
The soft foliage of the Maidenhair fern.
5 Cinnamon Fern
Reaching up to 6 ft, the attraction of the Cinnamon fern is largely due to its different colored fronds. The plume-like fronds are typically brown and orange in the center of the plant while taller, pale green fronds develop on the outside. This bi-colored appearance gives the plants depth, adding interest.
Thriving in damp or wet conditions, such as at the edge of a pond, while the Cinnamon fern prefers partial shade it can tolerate direct light if planted in water. Hardy in USDA Zones 4 to 9 these are one of the more versatile types of ferns.
The multi-colored Cinnamon fern.
6 Bird’s Nest Fern
Bird’s Nests don’t really look like other plants. The fronds tend to be thicker and more elongated than the airy or feathery fronds of other types of ferns. Often wrinkled, the central fronds can look like a bird’s nest, hence the name. The more light that the fronds receive the more crinkled they become.
Like the Staghorn fern as well as bromeliad plants, this is an epiphytic plant, meaning that it doesn’t need to be grown in a pot filled with potting soil. It can also be mounted. A slow growing species, the Bird’s Nest fern can reach up to 7 ft tall in the right outdoors environment. When grown inside, they rarely exceed 2 ft. Pleasingly drought tolerant, if the soil is kept moist humidity levels can be allowed to fall.
The Bird’s Nest fern is one of the more distinctive types of ferns.
7 Ostrich Fern
One of the larger types of ferns, the fronds of the Ostrich fern can reach up to 5 ft. in height. As the name suggests, when fully developed the fronds can resemble the plumes of an ostrich. While elegant, these large fronds can cause the plant to spread out meaning that without regular maintenance they can become unruly, overshadowing other nearby plants.
Best planted in rich, moist soil the fronds of the Ostrich fern may become scorched if planted in direct light. Hardy in USDA Zones 3 to 8, this is one of the more cold hardy types of ferns. A good background plant, at the back of a border it can provide an elegant backdrop to showcase other, smaller flowers.
Larger plants are ideal for creating a green backdrop to highlight more colorful flowers.
8 Japanese Painted Fern
One of the more colorful types of fern, the fronds of the Japanese Painted fern can be silver with blue decorations and red stems. Other cultivars can have purple veins and pink stems. Whatever the cultivar, the silver foliage of the Painted fern helps it to stand out amongst other types of ferns and plants.
Thriving in moist soil and with just a few hours of direct light every day, a position that enjoys morning sun is ideal, these plants are typically hardy in USDA Zones 5 to 8. Unlike other plants that require regular fertilization in order to thrive, these are best left unfertilized. Fertilizer or soil that is too rich can damage these sensitive plants.
Varieties with different colored veins and stems add further interest.
9 Royal Fern
Ideal for damp parts of the garden, or planting close to ponds and water features, these are deciduous plants, dropping their leaves in the fall or early winter. The Royal fern is a large plant, growing up to 6 ft tall and 3 ft wide, that is best suited to planting in the ground as a specimen plant. While you can grow a royal fern on the patio, it may be too large for cultivation as a houseplant.
Like other types of ferns, keep this variety away from direct sunlight. Too much exposure to direct sun can cause the foliage to burn. A deciduous plant, during the fall the foliage turns an attractive bronze shade before falling away.
Many types of ferns thrive in dark or shady positions.
10 Leatherleaf Fern
Identified by their deep green glossy foliage, the Leatherleaf fern is a popular landscaping choice. Ideal for providing ground cover the plants do best in moist, well draining soil. To further boost the plant and keep it healthy, regularly enrich the soil around the plant with bark or compost.
In ideal conditions the plants can reach up to 3 ft tall and wide. Native to the southern hemisphere, these types of ferns thrive in shady spots and are hardy in USDA Zones 8 to 11.
The thick leathery foliage of the Leatherleaf fern. Source: Rumohra adiantiformis (Leatherleaf Fern) by Leonora (Ellie) Enking / CC BY-SA 2.0
11 Australian Tree Fern
When it comes to the tree fern, height and size are the main attraction. Unlike other types of ferns these do not change color in the fall nor do they fruit or flower. While you can grow these the Australian Tree fern as a houseplant, they are best grown outside. In the wild a Tree fern can reach up to 40 ft. tall while the large fronds can be 4 to 20 ft long depending on the growing position.
To help the plants settle into their new position, water regularly after planting, especially during dry spells. Most varieties of Tree fern are happiest in sunny spots or shady locations. A good choice for a specimen plant, the Tree fern may struggle if the growing conditions, such as temperature or humidity levels change suddenly.
The large, tree-like Tree Fern.
12 Hay-Scented Fern
One of the more unique types of ferns on our list, the Hay-Scented Fern is native to the eastern half of the United States. Producing arching yellow-green fronds these plants can reach 3 ft tall and wide. Hardy in USDA Zones 3 to 8 if planted outside, you can also grow them indoors.
A good groundcover choice in shady areas, this is one of the quick growing types of ferns on our list. Like many other fern specimens they thrive in areas with high humidity levels and regular moisture.
As the name suggests the Hay-Scented fern is a fragrant plant. Crushing the leaves releases a scent reminiscent of freshly cut hay.
The Hay-Scented fern is a fragrant addition to the home or garden. https://pixabay.com/photos/fern-frond-hay-scented-fern-3184915/
13 Lady in Red
An ideal choice for a vertical garden, or to train up trellising, the Lady in Red fern is prized for its fast, vertical growth habit. The bright red stems help the pale green foliage to pop with color. Hardy in USDA Zones 3 to 8 you can also plant these types of ferns in hanging baskets, allowing the stems to climb down towards the ground. Happy in rich, moist well draining soil, Lady in Red is more drought tolerant than other varieties on our list.
14 Asparagus Fern
Another of our types of ferns that are ideal for hanging baskets either on an outside porch or patio or inside, the Asparagus fern produces masses of fuzzy looking fronds. While these may look soft they are actually covered in small, thorny spurs. Make sure you wear work gloves when handling them.
Happy in the shade, these types of ferns can sometimes produce attractive small white flowers but this is very uncommon. More likely to appear on happy and healthy plants are bright red berries. These can be harvested and planted on.
Be warned, if you are growing the Asparagus fern as a houseplant it requires daily misting to maintain humidity levels. A bottle mister, like the Yebeauty Plant Mister, is a great investment if you are starting any type of houseplant collection. The mister delivers a consistent, fine spray enabling you to quickly and easily maintain or raise humidity levels.
Specimens with fuzzy foliage add texture to a collection.
15 Brake Fern
The Brake fern is a popular houseplant thanks to its resilient nature and interestingly shaped, variegated foliage. A member of the Petris genus, these types of ferns have a noticeable clump forming growth habit. While smaller varieties are ideal for table tops and windowsills, larger varieties are a popular choice to add color to the corner of an office.
Thriving in humid areas, Brakes are one of the more low maintenance options on our types of ferns list. Requiring just a little regular water and regular pruning to keep it looking healthy and encourage new growth, these hardy plants quickly start to thrive.
The variegated foliage of certain varieties add further interest.
Elegant and attractive, many of the types of ferns highlighted above are ideal for a range of planting structures, a great way to soften hard spaces or introduce color and texture to an area, wherever you choose to plant your fern it is sure to be a success.
Jack founded our blog after two decades of working in the pest control industry. His vast experience dealing with a wide array of pests allows him to diagnose issues quickly and get to the heart of pest problems quickly and effectively. He has serviced more than 2,000 homes over his career and there is hardly any pest situation that he has not seen before.