Tree fern. The name sounds like a bit of a contradiction, as we’re used to thinking of ferns as the lush green plants that fill the understory of our Northwest forests. But in other parts of the world, ferns get big. Really big. Specifically, this happens in Australia, where ferns grow to dinosaur-like proportions.
Enter the tree fern. Imagine your classic fern leave shape and then triple its size, and stick it on top of a furry, woody “trunk” that starts short, but can get many feet tall over time. Tree ferns come from tropical and subtropical areas, and the name actually refers to several different families of ferns with similarly tree-like growth habits.
Before delving into tree fern care, we should tell you why we’re crushing so hard on tree ferns this fall. As a statement plant, this one makes a big splash, with lush feathery fronds that unfurl from beautifully curled branches, stretching 4-6 feet long. Tree ferns may start small, but they grow big over time, 6-10 feet or higher. We’ve been incorporating this plant into a lot of our interior plant design projects of late, and just love the way they create a Northwest tropical feel.
Our Favorite Tree Fern Species
- Dicksonia antarctica: Also called the “soft tree fern,” this species is native to eastern Australia. In their native habitat, they can grow up to 50 feet tall (!), but don’t worry – indoors, they’ll max out around 10′, depending on the environmental conditions (light, water, temp etc) and container size. We love them for their beautifully airy, bright green fronds and furry trunks.
- Cyathea australis: This species’ nickname is the “rough tree fern,” because of the outcroppings on its furry trunk. But don’t be fooled; it may be called rough, but it’s a beautiful specimen. We love it because of the distinctive colorful “crown” that forms in the fronds, with darker green above and lighter green below.
- Cyathea cooperi: This final species is also known as the “lacy tree fern,” and is the species most commonly cultivated as an ornamental indoor plant. We love it because the fonds, as they unfurl, are particularly attractive, from tightly wound stems that become lighter brown and then green as they open.
Tree Fern Care
It’s very important to know how to care for a tree fern before bringing one into your home as an indoor plant.
Water: The key to tree fern care is not to let your plant dry out. Remember: they come from the tropics, where the rain falls frequently and humidity is high. You’ll want to replicate this in your home. Never allow the pot to go fully dry. Water when the first inch or so of the soil has dried out. The plant can be planted in a large pot, which will assist with moisture retention.
Light: Tree ferns require bright light to thrive. They should be protected from harsh, direct light, but you’ll want to place your plant somewhere in your home where it will get your brightest, filtered or indirect light to encourage growth.
Pruning: It’s common for the lower leaves of tree ferns to die back. You can safely prune these. Over time, the “trunk” of the fern (exposed when you trim lower leaves) will grow to be quite tall.
Feeding: Mature tree ferns are heavy feeders. If you have a large specimen, feed it every two weeks or so during the period of active growth (spring-summer) with aliquid fertilizer.
We hope this encourages you to check out the wonderful world of tree ferns. What are your favorite species? Have you had success keeping these in your home as houseplants? Share with us in the comments!