Plant Profile: how to care for…Maidenhair fern

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Everyone loves maidenhair fern. They were the It Plant a couple of years ago – I remember because I fell in love with one, brought it home and killed it within a fortnight.

Sad times.

I was understandably put off by this so didn’t get one until late last year. I’m happy to say that it’s doing ok.

It’s not grown much (from what I can tell – I really need to take a picture of plants when I buy them so I can tell how much they’ve grown), but it’s still alive.

It doesn’t even require that much care. They just seem to go downhill quickly if you abandon them for too long.

Quickfire maidenhair fern care

  • Light: dappled. Good luck.
  • Humidity: 50%+
  • Temperature: 21C/70F
  • Watering: keep it moist, not wet. Tap water is fine if it isn’t too hard
  • Fertilise: monthly, with a general-purpose fertiliser
  • Potting medium: house plant potting mix + perlite
  • Propagation: spores, division
  • Pests: aphids, mealybugs, scale
  • Bloom? No – – ferns produce spores instead
  • Toxic? no

Where do maidenhair ferns come from?

Maidenhair ferns grow in the wild in the woods of the Pacific Northwest and much of eastern North America, as well as Japan.

They typically grow in the gaps between rocks, where water seeps through and keeps them wet.

Interestingly, they’re known as a hardy fern, rather than a tropical fern, so you’d think they were a cinch to take care of. But no, inside our houses is not quite the same as the moist woods in which they naturally grow, which is why they have a tendency to die if ignored.

The maidenhair fern commonly sold to house plant enthusiasts is the Adiantum peruvianum (or Peruvian Maidenhair fern). I’m going to boldly assume it comes from Peru – not exactly a leap, is it?

So I’m confident that maidenhair ferns are pretty widespread throughout the Americas.

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Where should I put my maidenhair fern?

There are over 200 varieties of fern that are under the ‘maidenhair’ classification. A couple of these will even grow in your garden, but I’m discussing the ones commonly found in garden centres being sold as house plants.

I keep mine on the open shelving in my kitchen, about three feet away from a south-facing window that is both textured and protected from the sun by the house next door.

In the summer, mine will be moving to my bathroom window, which is facing the same way as the kitchen window, but with a bit more filtered light and more humidity.

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Light conditions for maidenhair fern

Maidenhair ferns can tolerate some bright, indirect light, but they scorch easily.

Ferns, in general, receive dappled light in the wild, so try to replicate that as much as you can.

If your fern isn’t growing well or is getting yellowing fronds, it could be a sign that it isn’t getting enough light, so you may need to experiment to get the light just right.

EDIT FOR 2021

I’ve changed my mind.

When my maidenhair fern got aphids, she lost all her fronds but one. Plus she had aphids. The only spot I had in the house that I could isolate her in was in my south-facing bathroom window.

Now, it’s not bright bright there – there’s textured glass in the window, and next doors house blocks a lot of sun, but it’s definitely bright indirect/bright light.

My maidenhair fern THRIVED (throve?) in brighter light.

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Temperature preferences for maidenhair ferns

As I mentioned before, these plants can be temperature hardy, but the Peruvian one (which is the one we probably all have) really doesn’t like to go below 16 degrees C (about 60F).

It likes to be at around 21C/70F. That’s when it’s at its happiest.

Oh, and they don’t like drafts.

I moved my maidenhair fern into the bathroom earlier this year, and she freaking LOVES it. I’m going to keep her in the bathroom (despite bathrooms being a bit cold for tropical plants in winter) to see how temperature hardy she really is.

I’m not recommending you do this, as it’s definitely a risk, but I’ll update this post as and when it’s looking like she’s not coping.

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Humidity preferences for maidenhair ferns

As you can probably guess, maidenhair ferns love a bit of humidity. If you don’t have a humidifier, then I’d put it in the shower/bathroom.

I could go on about misting and pebble trays, but I personally believe this to be more hassle than it’s worth.

If you want to have humidity-loving plants and you live in a house with dry air, you’re best off investing in a humidifier. Or fill your bathroom to the rafters.

Bathrooms aren’t a great option for plants that like consistent humidity (hi, Calathea) but ferns don’t seem to mind the changing levels.

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How to water your maidenhair fern

Ok, there are a lot of opinions online about this, but from what I can gather, if your tap water isn’t too hard, you can use it to water your maidenhair fern.

I use tap water (ahem, directly from the shower) and I have noticed white marks on my maidenhair fern that I assume are mineral deposits.

mineral deposits after watering maidenhair fern with tap water

Normal watering rules apply: use room temperature water and make sure all of the soil is watered thoroughly.

Don’t allow your maidenhair fern to dry out. If you’re an overwaterer, this is a plant for you, maybe not so much if you’re an underwaterer (though I’m one of the latter and mine’s still alive).

As always, don’t let your fern sit in water. Just because it likes its soil to be kept moist doesn’t mean it wants to sit in a bog. These plants can still develop root rot and fungal problems like all the others. It ain’t special.

Confession time: since moving mine to the bathroom, I rarely water her ‘properly’. Every few weeks I will sit her in my bottom-watering tray but most of the time I just flick shower water at her when I’m in the shower (I cup it in my hands so I know it’s not boiling).

As soon as the surface of the water is dry I dampen it – you could do the same thing with a spray bottle if your maidenhair fern isn’t in the shower.

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How to fertilise your maidenhair fern

No special requirements here – fertilise every month or so with a fertiliser diluted to a solution half as strong as the manufacturer specifies.

Did that make sense?

If the manufacturer says to make a solution of 1 part fertiliser to 10 parts water, we do 1 part fertiliser to 20 parts water.

Or whatever.

I just add a tiny drop of seaweed emulsion to my watering can, but I know many people like exact numbers.

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Pests common to maidenhair fern

Watch out for aphids, mealybugs, and scale.

You can’t really wash the leaves of maidenhair fern with neem oil very well because it can weigh own the delicate leaves, so you’re best off spraying the plant down with a mix of water and insecticidal soap.

A lot of people swear by the Dr. Bronners soap, so I shall have to get some. They quite often have it in TK Maxx.

Aphids are your most likely pest. Look at the new fiddleheads (which are the most tender and delicious apparently) – the baby aphids are usually black and will cluster on the new growth.

Getting rid of pests on maidenhair ferns requires a delicate hand. I actually lost all the fronds but one but it regrew like a champ.

maidenhair fern recovery from aphids

If you look closely at the photo on the left, you can see tiny fiddleheads starting to grow.

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Potting mix for maidenhair fern

Again, nothing special. Just use a regular potting mix with some perlite mixed in. Just because ferns like their soil to be kept moist doesn’t mean they don’t need a well-draining potting mix.

No one likes having wet feet.

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What type of pot is best for maidenhair fern?

This is really up to you, and you’re watering habits.

If you’re a chronic over-waterer, then, by all means, put your maidenhair fern in a terracotta pot.

Just be aware that terracotta will dry the soil out pretty quickly, so you’ll need to check on your fern regularly – maybe up to every other day in summer.

Note that I said to check your plant every other day, not to just blindly water it every other day. A moisture probe is your friend here – the one I use is on my resources page.

I’d probably recommend plastic or ceramic pots (with a drainage hole, if you can find such a unicorn) if you’re not a chronic over-waterer.

If you let your maidenhair fern dry out, you don’t get a very long window in which to water it.

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Are maidenhair ferns toxic?

Nope, but their delicate fronds could potentially pose a choking habit.

Maidenhair ferns are actually herbal remedies used to treat conditions like asthma and to strengthen hair. Does it work? No idea.

A lot of pets do like to nibble ferns, but it’s annoying rather than life-threatening.

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How to propagate maidenhair ferns

Ferns propagate in the wild by releasing spores (those little brown spots you get under the leaves are sori that house spores), but you can propagate yours by division if you wish.

I’ve never tried propagating from spores but you can follow the method here.

To be honest, it’s a bit fiddly for me. I can get along with collecting the spores between two pieces of paper and creating a little propagation box for them, but I’m not at all sure I can be bothered with fertilising gametophytes though (although I have learned a new word today).

Propagating by division just means taking the plant out of its pot and literally cutting the root ball in two. There are a couple of ways to do it:

  1. Get a sharp, sterilised knife and cut the root ball in half. Pot up each half.
  2. Look for a natural division in the plant (some plants produce pups, it’s pretty easy to see, but with maidenhairs ferns it’s often very much guess work) and gently ease it away from the main plant.

If I’m perfectly honest, I start with (2.), get bored, crack out a knife and finish up with (1.).

Growing Maidenhair ferns in terrariums

My boyfriend set up a terrarium this year and we have a couple of maidenhair ferns in there.

maidenhair fern and other plants growing in terrarium
Clockwise from top: maidenhair fern, creeping fig, aglaonema, some kind of peperomia that grows like a weed

You can see some holes in Aglaonema leaves. Slugs got into the terrarium, and we have no idea how. Aphids aren’t that much of an issue, as we have a little frog in there.

The initial set up of the terrarium is a bit of a chore, but the care is minimal. He sprays it down twice a day and…that’s it. I know having to do something twice a day, every day is a pain, but it takes seconds and I find building daily habits like that are easy to build on other ones – in our case, we feed the rabbits and spray the terrarium immediately after.

Maidenhair ferns grow much quicker in the terrarium, probably due to the consistency of the light, humidity, and temperature.

What is interesting is that the actual plant grows quite slowly in size, because the fronds don’t last very long before they die, but new fiddleheads are growing all the time.

maidenhair fern growing in terrarium

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Notes

  • They also grow in New Zealand.
  • They’re absolute divas, but you already gathered that, didn’t you?
  • EXCEPT
  • Once you’ve found a spot that they like, they grow pretty easily and quickly. It’s just finding a spot they like which is difficult.
  • Don’t posts like these make you wonder why house plants like maidenhair ferns get so popular? They’re a pain in the arse! Syngoniums do not get the attention they deserve.
  • If you want something that looks similarly ethereal but can’t hack the constant watering, go for an asparagus fern. They’re not actually ferns, but really look the part. They’re drought-tolerant and cool as hell.
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Please feel free to add any care tips in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “Plant Profile: how to care for…Maidenhair fern”

  1. I thought I killed mine after 2-3 years because I didn’t water it. But I hopefully started watering it again.and it came right back. I keep a spray bottle nearby and spray its leaves every couple of days and lightly water the soil almost daily. It’s about 12 feet from a west-facing window and temperatures range from 55 to 90 degrees.

    I think it is the least fussy plant I own!

  2. REALLY?? It must really love you!

    Once you give them the right conditions and care they grow really quickly, but it’s finding the right conditions that’s the tricky part!

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