A classic cornerstone for any houseplant collection is a well-watered fern, but what exactly is a fern?

The more we learn about ferns and their allies, the more we grow our fondness for these frond-producing friends. Come along with us on a brief tour of ferns, where we'll explore why these plants are so unique, where they come from, and, of course how to grow and care for your indoor fern collection.

What Is A Fern? An Introduction To Ferns - Pistils Nursery

Microsorum diversifolium - Kangaroo Paw Fern

An Introduction to Ferns

What is a fern

What makes a fern a fern? Who are they exactly? Why are they so enchanting? Simply put, a fern is a member of a class of plants called Polypodiopsida that has a primitive life cycle and does not produce flowers. No flowers means no seeds, and so these plants have a very unique method of reproduction.

Ferns actually go through two different, independent forms in the course of their life cycles. The first is what you are likely familiar with, the sporophyte. These have stems, leaves, roots and (as you might have guessed from the name) produce spores. When you pick up a fern at your local houseplant nursery (or plant one in your garden), you've got your hands on the sporophyte!

What Is A Fern? An Introduction To Ferns - Pistils Nursery

The second structure of the fern life-cycle is called a gametophyte. These form when spores land on fertile ground, and are typically small green, plate-like structures smaller than a blueberry, each with its own male and female reproductive organs. In favorable conditions, water facilitates fertilization (which is why ferns are commonly found in wet areas) and a new sporophyte forms!

The sporophytes also create clones of themselves through their root structures, creating the clusters of fern colonies we are familiar seeing on a hike through the forest floor.

Besides their unique reproduction method, ferns also have special leaves called fronds. New fronds unfurl from “fiddlehead” structures, which is quite beautiful to behold

Natural History of Ferns

Ferns bring along the wisdom and magic of ancient ancestors into our spaces. The characteristics of our fern friends can be seen in fossil records as early as the Devonian period over 400 million years ago. For perspective, this period of time is before dinosaurs made their first giant steps on the Earth!

Ferns today serve a very important role to research for evolutionary studies because they are believed to be mostly monophyletic, having just one evolutionary line. Imagine being able to follow one straight line all the way back to the beginning of time, or a family tree with one very long, tired branch stretching all the way back. That's how ancient the fern family is!

Modern Indoor Fern Care and Propagation

Ferns make for beautiful landscaping plants (look for species hardy in your region) as well as indoor potted companions. If you don’t have a collection of ferns yet, consider getting one if you love being hands on with your indoor plant care or have an outdoor environment suitable to their needs.

What Is A Fern? An Introduction To Ferns - Pistils Nursery

An unfurling frond of a Cyathea cooperi, the Australian Tree Fern

Ferns enjoy medium to bright indirect lighting, must be kept moist, and prefer warmer temperatures. A well-watered fern will unfurl many new fronds and quickly take over your space with delicate lacy green leaves. Ferns can be easily propagated year-round, but are best tried in spring and early summer.

Fern Propagation Methods

  • Roots- After a light watering you can gently separate the root ball in half or use a sharp knife to separate the root-ball into sections to be planted and cared for.
  • Spores- Collecting the delicate spore dust can be a bit tricky but using a sanitary knife you can scrape the spore dust into a mixture of 50/50 peat moss and compost soil. Keeping the freshly sown spores moist and warm they will sprout new ferns much like seeds.
  • Fronds- some fern species can be propagated by laying a full new frond on top of moist soil in a warm bright spot. The fern will make copies of itself to be grown and shared.

Our Favorite Ferns

Growing and caring for these diverse and ancient living ferns indoors and outdoors is very rewarding, and we recommend these plants to gardeners of all stripes! Here are a few of our favorites for in the home:

Platycerium genus
• Common Name: Staghorn Fern
• Origin: Australia
• Why we love them: Unique epiphytic ferns that can be mounted in wall displays in your home.


What Is A Fern? An Introduction To Ferns - Pistils Nursery


Davallia genus
• Common Name: Rabbit’s Foot Fern
• Origin: Fiji
• Why we love them: Unique, fuzzy rhizomes that grow down the side of the pot that look like cute little rabbit’s feet.

    Phlebodium aureum
    • Common Name: Blue Star Fern
    • Origin: Subtropical Regions of the Americas
    • Why we love them: Beautiful blue foliage!

    Doryopteris pedata
    • Common Name: Digit Fern
    • Origin: Tropical South America
    • Why we love them: Striking, furcated fronds! This plant looks like a rare aroid!

    Doryopteris pedata | Digit Fern | Pistils Nursery
    Asplenium nidus
    • Common Name: Bird’s Nest Fern
    • Origin: Southeastern Asia, Eastern Australia
    • Why we love them: A cheery, bright green fern with easy-to-display nest shape.


    Each one of these ferns is as rewarding to watch unfurl as the last. We could go on about which species has caught our attention at the moment but we know we love them all. What ferns have you fallen for?

    By: Bee Oxford


    Pistils Nursery