Are you looking to branch out into a more challenging family of indoor plants? It might be time to try your first fern.
Although ferns were popularised in the indoor gardens of the 19th century, they’re enjoying a resurgence today. The Victorians were particularly keen on the Boston or sword fern but we’ll be talking about a different variety.
Whether you choose to grow it as an air plant or in soil, the birds’ nest fern (also known as asplenium) is one of the easiest ferns to grow indoors. Read on for all the instructions you’ll need on getting started and keeping your bird’s nest fern healthy in the long term
|Bird’s nest fern, crow’s nest fern
|Boston fern, mother fern, staghorn fern
|African and Asian rainforests
|Fronds growing from a circular crown
|Fronds grow up to 3’ in length
|Moderate – high
|Low – moderate indirect light
|Moderate – high
|65 – 80 (18 – 26C)
|Orchid and bromeliad mix or potting soil with high peat content
|All-purpose fertilizer applied sparingly at half strength
|Non-toxic to humans and pets
|Gnats, mealybugs, scales, root rot
Although all ferns are a little tricky to keep as house plants, the bird’s nest fern is one of the most forgiving. In the wild, it’s a rainforest plant that grows without soil between the branches of large trees. As a house plant, it needs plenty of moisture in the soil and the air around it, lots of warmth, and protection from strong light.
Its name comes from its shape. The fronds grow from a circular crown and flop over to give the appearance of a nest. The leaves are apple-green and they can be crinkled or rippled at the edges.
In the wild, the fronds can grow up to 3 feet long. Although this would be rare for an indoor specimen, once you get the hang of bird’s nest fern care, it’s not that difficult to encourage it to grow.
Bird’s Nest Fern Plant Care
If you want to grow ferns, you need to water them regularly. In the summer, you’ll probably find yourself reaching for the watering can 2 -3 times per week. Like most house plants, they’ll need less attention in the colder months.
The soil should be constantly moist but never soggy to the touch. Always water the soil at the edge of the pot and never pour water into the middle of the plant. Watering the crown can rot the mature leaves and severely damage the delicate new growth.
This fern does not want to sit in water, but underwatering is less harmful. Your asplenium will survive for a day or two if the top of the soil dries out.
As a fern parent, your main job is to keep this plant out of the direct sun. You’ll be able to achieve the indirect or filtered light it prefers by keeping it 2 – 3 feet from a window or placing it behind a thin net curtain.
Unless it’s first thing in the morning, don’t allow the sun to hit the leaves. They’re thin and the new growth is particularly fragile. Either the leaves will burn or they’ll become wrinkled and papery. Too much light on mature leaves will cause their vibrant color to fade.
Although the plant is fussy, there is some good news. It might finally give you something to put in your difficult north-facing window.
Ferns require warmth and high humidity to thrive. They also need to be protected from cold drafts and sudden temperature changes, so keep them away from external doors, drafty windows and air conditioning units.
You can increase the humidity around your plant by using a humidifier or sitting it on a tray of pebbles filled with water. Terrariums look beautiful but they’re not a great choice because they don’t allow the air to circulate the leaves of the fern. If you want to create a humid microclimate and put on a show, a glass fishbowl is a better choice.
Alternatively, you can mist your fern in the morning or place it near other humidity-loving rainforest plants. Many growers also have success growing ferns in the bathroom, as long as there’s enough natural light and the temperature doesn’t vary too much over the day.
Plant Food and Soil
Because the bird’s nest fern grows as an air plant in the wild, you don’t usually need to fertilize it. In fact, the salts in most plant foods will damage the leaves in high doses. If you must feed it, dilute a balanced liquid fertilizer to half strength and apply it every 4 – 8 weeks in the growing season.
You have lots of choices when it comes to the soil you use for this plant. You could use a very peaty potting soil, which will give the fern plenty of acidity. Ideally, mix 2 parts peat with one part sand to give the fern the acidity it prefers and the drainage it needs to grow properly.
You also have the option of using a very loose bromeliad and orchid mix. Fern enthusiasts looking to try something new can even mount their fern to a piece of bark where it will continue to grow without soil. After all, in the wild, it grows as an air plant.
Additional Bird’s Nest Fern Care Tips
The bird’s nest fern care tips above are a good starting point. We hope it’s reassuring to know that watering, feeding and misting your fern is not as difficult as it might sound at first. As you can probably tell, though, there is plenty more to learn about this fascinating plant.
Don’t be in a rush to repot an asplenium. It can survive as an air plant, so the roots don’t need much room when they’re in a pot.
Just make sure that, if it is in a small pot, you don’t get to the point where the large leaves cause the pot to overbalance. Make sure you’ve got a heavy ceramic pot over the top of a plastic nursery pot to reduce the risk of this happening.
A good rule of thumb is to repot every 2 – 3 years or whenever the soil starts to look very compact. This way you’ll reduce the risk of overwatering the plant and damaging the roots.
Speaking of roots, be careful whenever you choose to repot your fern. The roots are very delicate and can easily be damaged as you tease them out.
One of the great things about ferns is that they don’t need much pruning. This is particularly true with a bird’s nest fern since all the new growth comes from the center of the plant in a predictable shape.
Your only job is to remove any leaves that are dead or damaged so the plant puts all of its energy into making fresh new growth. Otherwise, it will maintain its shape without any extra attention.
If you’re growing ferns outside, they can be very vulnerable to caterpillars and slugs because they have such tender leaves. Inside, you might see evidence of mealybugs and scales, which leave white residue on the leaves.
Both of these indoor pests can be controlled with a little neem oil diluted in your misting gun. This is a great natural pesticide that discourages most common insects.
The biggest problem you’re likely to have is gnats. These annoying bugs love moisture and loose soil almost as much as your fern and the pots can often become infested. While they’re unlikely to damage your plants, no one wants to have tiny flies in their house.
You can reduce the risk of gnats by using a fresh bag of potting mix when you repot your fern. If they’ve already moved into the pot, try using a traditional yellow sticky trap to catch them.
The bird’s nest fern is a unique plant and there are not a lot of varieties to choose from.
Asplenium nidus is the classic variety with the rippled edges to the leaves. Its cousin, asplenium australasicum, grows in humid parts of Australia. Its leaves grow more vertically than the bird’s nest, and they are generally smoother.
Spleenwort is another fern closely related to the bird’s nest but it is much harder to keep alive as a house plant. Its endangered in the wild in its native US and Brazil, grows larger than the common varieties and is darker green in color.
Is the bird’s nest fern poisonous?
Thankfully, the bird’s nest fern is totally non-toxic. It doesn’t pose a risk to either humans or animals, although it probably doesn’t taste that good.
The light, dangling leaves can be especially tempting for pets looking for a new toy. It’s also such a tactile plant that children are often attracted to it. The fact that it’s totally non-poisonous is good news all round.
How often should I water it?
You should always listen to your plants instead of following a strict written watering schedule.
Touch the soil before you water it. If it’s damp to the touch, perfect. If it’s dry, give it a moderate amount of water. If it’s soggy, step away from the watering can for a few more days and check that there’s not a puddle in the bottom of the pot.
As a guide, you should water your fern 2 – 3 times per week during the summer. Naturally, it will need much less water in the winter when its growth slows down. Compared to other ferns, asplenium is very forgiving and will recover if you accidentally leave it for a bit longer without water.
How can I grow it as a potted house plant?
It’s definitely possible to grow this plant in a pot indoors. In fact, many people find that their gardens aren’t humid enough to keep ferns looking their best and have better results when they grow them inside in controlled conditions.
If you do choose to grow it in a pot, choose a relatively small one and use a very loose soil. Either mix plenty of sand or perlite into a peaty potting mix or use a barky mixture suitable for orchids and bromeliads. Make sure that the pot has plenty of drainage holes, take action to increase the humidity around your plant, and keep it nice and warm.
You’ll have fresh fronds in no time.
Is it poisonous to cats?
No. Just as the bird’s nest fern is safe for humans to eat (though it’s not advised), cats won’t suffer any ill effects if they get a hold of a stray leaf. This is good news since the leaves are particularly tempting for playful felines.
If you have cats in your home, the biggest risk is to your plant. Because of the small root system and the plant’s preference for a small pot, it’s likely to overbalance and tip off a shelf if a cat takes an interest.
Do ferns like to be misted?
Yes, misting is an important part of an asplenium care routine. They need a high level of humidity and the extra moisture around the leaves stops them from burning in the light. However, they do still need good air circulation to prevent leaf rot and fungal infections setting in.
Make sure that you don’t mist so much that moisture starts to collect in the crown of the plant. As always, it’s best to mist first thing in the morning so that the leaves have a chance to dry out through the day.
If you’re looking to try something new in your indoor garden, look no further than a bird’s nest fern. It has a beautiful color and leaf shape, and it’s forgiving enough that even a fern novice should be able to keep one alive without becoming discouraged.
If you’ve already got lots of rainforest plants like bromeliads and orchids, this is the natural next step. They have similar requirements, they help each other out when it comes to humidity, and they contrast beautifully with each other to make their corner of your home look particularly lush and beautiful.