Ferns are one of the most ancient, diverse, and iconic species of plants. But alongside their great visual variety, comes a great variety of fern care. Much like people, all ferns share some similarities but have different preferences in how they like to be treated.
Read on to find out about some of the most beautiful, strange, and fascinating fern plant types and how to deliver the top fern care to these fronded friends.
What’s special about ferns?
Ferns have been around since way before the dinosaurs! Ferns first appear in the fossil record 360 million years ago, in the late Devonian period. They were one of the first large land plants that helped produce the oxygen that enabled other life forms to evolve on land.
Rather than having flowers that fertilise and develop into seeds, most ferns reproduce via spores that can be seen on the underside of their leaves. These spores can travel 100s of miles in air currents!
As the number of insects on Earth grew, flowering species of fern also evolved. For example, Dutchman’s pipe, or Aristolochia gigantea, is a flowering fern with large drooping flowers that has been alive since dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Different fern plant types live for different lengths of time but some ferns can live to 100 years old!
Ferns are popular nowadays both as house plants and garden plants. They are perfect house plants as they have great soothing quality due to their fractal structures, and are excellent both at filtering the air and increasing humidity.
They are great in gardens because many are evergreen, meaning they provide lush colour and life in a garden during the winter. Their fans of curved fronds are ideal for filling and adding texture to borders.
The top fern plant types
When you think of ferns you may imagine the classic fronded fern you find in woodlands in the UK. However, there are 10,560 known fern species. After all, 360 million years is plenty of time to evolve a variety of species! Many of these species are very distinct and require different types of fern care.
Ferns species can range in size, from just a few millimetres in size to 25-metre tree ferns! These iconic plants have spread and adapted to grow in many environments and can also be found in tropical, temperate and Arctic environments. The widest variety of fern species is found in tropical regions.
Below are some of the most strange and beautiful and strange fern plant types, and the type of fern care they require. If you’re a lover of ferns, you’re bound to love these ones!
1. Stag horn fern, Platycerium bifurcatum
This fern, originally from Indonesia, is named after its large flat antler-shaped leaves, emanating from a central point. It is an epiphyte, meaning it grows without soil!
Instead, it absorbs its nutrients and humidity directly from the air. It can therefore be grown in crevices between rocks and on the trunks of large trees. As its leaves drop it creates its own soil, but if you want to pot it you can use a good, inert growing medium, like wood bark, expanded clay pellets, or Flotsam.
Placing it in a hanging basket or macrame plant hanger is a great way to show off its long elegant leaves. Fern care for this cutie is rather simple. Give it plenty of bright but indirect sunlight and mist it every other morning. If treated right, it can grow up to a metre!
2. Giant hare’s foot fern, Davallia solida
This is one of the most bizarre fern plant types. It gets its name from its furry ‘feet’ that grow at the base of its stem!
It is native to Australia and one of the most ancient fern species. This fern is also an epiphyte, so can be potted in the same way as the stag horn fern. It likes bright but indirect sunlight and loves humidity. To give it top-level fern care you can mist this plant regularly.
3. Lace fern, Asparagus setaceus
This fern’s dense fronds are so fine and delicate that it has a fluffy texture! It is among the most popular fern plant types to have as a houseplant. However, despite its name, it is actually part of the lily family. It’s believed to have travelled to Europe from its native habitat, South Africa, in the 1600’s as wealthy Europeans sourced plants from around the world to populate their botanical glasshouses!
The lace fern starts off quite dense but if given the fern care it deserves it will reach upwards with long tendrils that can be encouraged to climb. If treated well, it can grow up to 2.5 metres and even blossom in the summer and develop purple berries in the autumn!
This plant likes bright, indirect sunlight, frequent watering, and the occasional misting, especially if your home is very dry, as many houses are in the winter when the heating is on. Be careful not to leave the lace fern sitting in water as this will cause it to develop root rot.
4. Blue Star Fern, Phlebodium aureum
This fern makes it easy to imagine how ferns evolved from underwater plants. Its leaves have a smooth curved shape and are loosely wavy, giving the impression that its leaves are suspended in a moving ocean. These ferns’ leaves also have a beautiful unusual silvery blue-green colour.
Like many of the fern plant types described here, it is an epiphyte. In its natural habitat, in the tropical rainforest of South America, the Blue Star Fern grows on the side of trees. Because it is used to growing under the dense rainforest canopy, it doesn’t need much light and dislikes direct sunlight.
These ferns can be grown outside during the summer months, but to look after your ferns make sure they are not exposed to more than an hour of direct sunlight. Although they like warm environments, they will not appreciate being placed near a heater or radiator as the air will be too dry for them.
5. Hart’s tongue fern, Asplenium scolopendrium
This fern is native to the UK and is commonly found in ancient woodlands. If you find this fern while walking in the woods, it may indicate that you are standing in a rare and highly precious ancient woodland habitat! The hart’s tongue fern is easy to identify as it is the only native fern plant type with smooth, simple silhouettes leaves, rather than divided into fronds.
This fern likes damp shady areas and can of course be grown outside as well as inside! It is a great plant to cover ground in shady spots and likes to be watered regularly, and because it grows outside little fern care is required. These ferns grow well in chalk, clay, loam, or sandy soil that is alkaline or neutral and will not like acidic soil.
Its fronds are glossy, curved, and deep green, with gently waved edges and each frond can group up to 50cm long. Its leaves are used to make cosmetics and many medicines ranging from astringents to medicines for treating wounds, coughs and high blood pressure, dysentery, and digestive problems. We love a plant with multi-purposes!
6. Asparagus emerald fern, Asparagus densiflorus 'Sprengeri'
This fern has a cloud of needle-like delicate leaves that cascade from its stem with a wild energy. It is native to Southern Africa and grows on coastal sand dunes, in the rainforest and in open woodland.
As an indoor plant, it is easy to care for. It likes to be watered every time the top 2 cm of soil gets dry. It will flourish if kept out of direct sunlight. If its leaves start to go yellow, this is a sign it is getting scorched by too much sunlight and needs to be moved to a shadier spot.
This fern is invasive if planted outside so only plant it in your garden if you are able to give it sufficient fern care to make sure it does not spread beyond your control!
7. Soft tree fern, Dicksonia antarctica
These ferns can reach up to a whopping 15 metres tall when growing in their native habitat Australia! However, don’t worry, if you don’t have all that room, in the UK their maximum height is often 4 metres. Soft tree ferns have been around since the time of the dinosaurs. They were a favourite food for large herbivorous dinosaurs who, each day, would munch through 500kg a day of these ferns!
They have a thick reddish-brown trunk covered in fibrous, coarse roots, crowned with a fan of large but delicately shaped glossy fronds. Although this tree is evergreen in Australia in colder environments as well as growing more slowly it may be deciduous.
Soft tree fern care involves keeping it moist, in well-drained soil, and under partial shade. In hot weather water the trunk but avoid watering the crown during the winter. This type of fern plant makes a beautiful tropical centrepiece on a patio or structural pieces in a flower bed.
Key ‘fern facts’ to remember!
The key take away is that ferns are a hugely varied species, ranging from trees to 2 millimetre high plants, so whatever the aesthetic, time commitments, and habitat conditions, there is a fern that will fit the bill!
Remember that generally ferns love humidity, so most will reward you with luscious foliage if you mist them occasionally, and water them little but often. It is also important to bear in mind that many ferns are Epiphytes so check whether they need soil before potting them in rich compost!
With this knowledge about fern plant types and fern care tips under your belt, you should now be prepared to choose the ideal ferns for different indoor and outdoor environments, and desired visual effects. Have fern with it!