Questions on: Ferns

Ron Smith, Horticulturist, NDSU Extension Service

Q: I have a long time family fern, but I'm unsure of the type. After many moves, it died down to one section of healthy fronds. Now it has many rootlike vines growing out of the soil. Should I plant these under the soil to make new sections grow? Any help would be appreciated. (e-mail reference)

A: Because you weren't specific with me, I cannot give you a good answer. Instead, I'm directing you to a Web site ( that answers all kinds of fern questions.

Q: Last fall, before the frost, I took into my sunroom a potted lily that was going to bloom. In the middle of November, I noticed that the buds were full of little, green bugs. I immediately put the lily back out into the cold and no longer cared if I ever saw the blooms again. I also noticed a few of the bugs on my hibiscus. I have been spraying Raid House and Garden spray, but can't seem to get rid of the bugs. They also have traveled to a fern. Do you have any suggestions? The bugs on the fern look more like spider mites with webs. The fronds are turning brown and dying. (e-mail reference)

A: The problem on the fern sure sounds like spider mites. To control them, you need a miticide, not an insecticide. It may be the infestation already is too far gone, so you may have to dump the plants. Your description of little, green bugs on your lily sounds like aphids, which usually are easy enough to control if caught early. Again, the infestation may be too intense, so it may not be feasible to attempt control.

Q: I purchased an Australian fern tree last summer and had it on my front porch (shaded) until late fall. The fern did fantastic outside and would unroll a new frond almost every week. I took the fern to my office, which gets decent filtered light, but is rather dry. Days after moving the fern, many of its branches shriveled up and died. A few remained green and the plant appears to be surviving. I trimmed the dead branches off. Was that a poor decision on my part and do you have any advice as to what I should do to save it until summer? (e-mail reference)

A: I would suggest misting the foliage with distilled water. Removing the dead foliage was the right thing to do. Anything you can do to increase the humidity around the plant will help it survive the remaining winter weeks.

Q: I have two fern peonies. Every year they keep cutting them off at ground level at the cemetery. Does that hurt the bark for next year? (Langford, S.D.)

A: If the foliage is removed early in the growing season, it will weaken the plants and reduce their flowering ability.

Q: I bought a fern-looking plant called multi majesty. Now it has a strong, thin veil of web spread across the majority of leaves. The plant also has a large amount of tiny orange bugs. I think the bugs are spider mites. Is there a way to kill the bugs without killing the plant? So far the only suggestions have been to use very rare and pricey miticides or high water pressure. Do you have any suggestions? (e-mail reference)

A: Place the entire plant in the shower and run cold water over the foliage. If water from a shower head ruins the plant, then it is too wimpy to survive even in a household environment. If you can do this at least once a week until you see no bug activity, you will have won the battle. Schultz and other companies make earth-friendly miticides, insecticides and fungicides that can be used on houseplants. They also are not that expensive. I would suggest getting one of those at a local retail outlet to use after washing the plant in the shower has brought the mite population down to tolerable numbers.

Q: I am very happy to have found your Web site because it has all sorts of great information.

I purchased a bird's nest fern as a houseplant. I replanted it in organic potting soil the day I bought it and fertilized it once (I've had it about a month now). It is miserable. Its color is fading and a few of the leaves look burned on the edges. The plant has not grown (I can see a new leaf ready to unfurl at the inside base, but it is completely dormant). I'm almost sure it is salt-burned because salt residue comes out the base of the terra cotta pot when I water, but I don't know how to remedy that. Also, I'm unsure of how much light it requires. I have it in a medium (no direct sun) setting. (e-mail reference)

A: Keep the water coming to leach out the salts. If necessary, use distilled water to accelerate the leaching process. Ferns need fertilization often, but use very little each time. Try misting the foliage with distilled water on a regular basis.

Q: I have an asparagus fern that is becoming too big for its pot. If I can find a pot that is big enough, I donít think my ceiling hook will hold it. Can I divide it in half? A few years ago, it had little white flowers, but never gets them anymore. I have gone through the Hortiscope column to find any reference, but was unsuccessful. (e-mail reference)

A: I donít think I have had any inquiries concerning asparagus ferns, at least that I can recall! This weed has almost become a celebrity as a houseplant. I would suggest knocking it out of its container, then taking a straight-edged spade or an axe and split the thing into as many segments as you want. Repot one of the segments in the same container and throw the rest away or plant them outdoors as part of the landscape. Keep in mind that this a poisonous plant, so you want to keep pets and kids from chewing on the foliage. Indoors, the plant probably doesnít get enough light to flower, except every so often. Outdoors, you may get flowering every summer.

Q: I have a large bed of ferns full of weeds and small trees. I have been pulling them, but they keep coming back. What can I do to keep the ferns, but kill everything else? (e-mail reference)

A: Not much that I know of, except dig everything up, pack the ferns in moist sphagnum peat moss and take out what you donít want in the bed. Once clean, replant the ferns, but make sure they are not carrying any unwanted plants back to the clean bed. It is not fun and there are no chemicals that I know of that are selective, but the procedure I described is very effective.

Q: I have a bathroom in the house that receives very little light. I am looking for a houseplant that can tolerate very little light and likes the steam from the shower. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. (e-mail reference)

A: Sounds like a perfect setting for a Boston or Dallas fern.

Q: Is it possible to grow fiddlehead (ostrich fern) in North Dakota? (e-mail reference)

A: It is hardy to zone 2. Even though it feels like zone 2 this summer, it isn't! It should grow beautifully if you can establish it out of the wind and plant it in about 50 percent sphagnum peat moss.

Q: While transplanting my fern, I found a lot of these tater-type things. Can you tell me what they are and if new ferns will grow from them? (e-mail reference)

A: They are fern storage organs. Leave them alone and all will be fine.

Q: My father recently passed away and had a very large stag horn fern that he dearly loved. My brother now has it but I would like to take a cutting off of it. Can I do it without damaging the original plant? (E-mail reference)

A: Itís best to propagate them from the spores on the fronds or from the little "pups" at the base of the plant. They can also be propagated easily via cuttings.

Q: My problem concerns a section of my yard where the ferns and grapevines have turned yellow. We didnít have a lot moisture last year so I don't think thatís the cause. I've had the ferns for several years. They are on the north side of our garage but get morning sunlight. The grapevines are farther out and get more sunlight during the day. Could there be a lack of some minerals in the soil? (York, N.D.)

A: Yellowing foliage on two different genera of plant material is an indication of something abiotic. My first suspicion is usually herbicide drift, through the soil or air. If no herbicides have been used in or near that area, then it is a coin toss as to what it could be. You might try experimenting with Miracid, an acidifying water soluble fertilizer that would provide a shotgun supply of nutrients. That would correct the problem if there is a nutrient deficiency.

I don't know what else to suggest.

Q: I have a beautiful Boston fern that has been in my family for years. It was my mother-in-lawís pride and joy. She has now passed and I want to keep it healthy. It is doing well, except that some of the fronds are turning yellow in the middle and dying. Am I giving it too much water or not enough? It is in an east window and seems to love it there. That is where it has always been. (E-mail reference)

A: Occasional die off of a leaf or two is not uncommon. Keep it misted with distilled water and in general don't worry about overwatering it. Misting is quite critical to get the plant through the winter months when the central heating systems are in full use and drying the air. Certainly don't move the plant.

Q: I purchased several baby ferns from a plant nursery. All but one are absorbing water. The water just seeps out under the pot, even if I skip a day of watering. (E-mail reference)

A: Sounds like it has developed hydrophobic tendencies. Try immersing it in water with just the smallest drop of liquid soap added to break the tension. That often works.

Q: I was wondering if you could tell me when is the best time to transplant ferns. I think they are called cinnamon ferns. (Morris, M.N.)

A: The best time is in early spring, but I have witnessed (and done it myself!) successful transplanting in summer. It all depends on the TLC you can give it. I suggest making sure it is well hydrated the day before, and either on a cloudy day, or toward the evening hours, dig the fern up with a generous ball of soil and move it to the new location, watering in well.

I am not familiar with the variety of fern you mention.

Q: I've inherited a boston fern from my sister-in-law who recently passed away.

She had it in a basket causing it to have approximately 9 inches of dried stem before the fronds grew. I would like to transplant this or whatever I need to have a healthy plant, but do not know where to start. It has sentimental value for me and I would like to do what I can to revitalize it. Could you give me advise on what to do? (E-mail reference)

A: No problem. Ferns need a high humus mixture in a container that will facilitate good drainage. It should also consist of about 60 percent peat-based potting mixture and about 40 percent coarse sand or medium grade perlite. Some recommendations call for the addition of one cup of activated charcoal. Work into this mixture a low analysis fertilizer that is recommended for ferns (10-10-10) or something similar, and keep well watered.

Q: I was in a hotel and kept admiring an unusual fern. As I was leaving I took one last look and realized that it had small fern plants growing up and down the fronds. I snitched a couple (as any responsible gardener would do) and am now rooting them. I wonder if you know what kind of fern it could be. Are "piggy back" ferns common? I have never seen one. (E-mail reference)

A: I really don't know if they are common or not. According to one of my references, they are not. I suspect what you may have "snitched" was the Asplenium bulbiferum, or the hens and chickens fern, which produces bulblets or plantlets on the upper leaf surfaces.

Q: This year almost all of my tomatoes split on top. The bottoms were fine. I kept them watered and mulched. Why did this happen? Also my ferns got brown and dry by the middle of August. I think it may have been from the hot wind. Could that be? (E-mail reference, northern South Dakota)

A: Sometimes it has to do with the variety of the tomato, and it usually affects the first fruit setting the most. I would suggest considering another tomato cultivar (variety) next spring, since it appears that you did everything right this year. Concerning the ferns, the wind could very easily be the cause. Some ferns are tough and will bounce back next spring, so don't give up hope just yet.

Q: On a TV garden show a while back, they showed how a person could grow ferns from date pits (and also from other ordinary food products/seeds). I wrote the directions down but have misplaced them. Do you know how to grow these plants? (Sanborn, N.D.)

A: Yes, the date palm can be grown from date seeds, grapefruit trees from the "pips" in the fruit and avocados from the pits they contain. Refer to "Home Propagation Techniques"(NCR-274), a publication available from the NDSU Extension Service. It should answer most of your other questions.

Q: When I was repotting my fern I forgot to put peat moss in the bottom of the container as you recommended. Will it be harmful to my plant? (Carrington, N.D.)

A: No, it is not necessary to have the peat moss at the bottom of the container. Just pay good attention to the water needs of your plant.

Q: I am having trouble with my fern and spider plant leaves turning yellow. I read in the paper that I should only be watering my fern once a month, but I don't think that is often enough. Also, I am wondering if it is safe to repot these plants. I really do not want them to die on me. (Carrington, N.D.)

A: If what you sent me in the mail represents the state of your fern, it isn't long for this world anyway! So go ahead and pot it up, along with your spider plant.

I have never heard of a fern needing water only once a month. Perhaps it was a misprint. Moving it to a cooler location may help it out too!

Q. Is there a good fern for centrally heated homes with about 40 percent humidity? Could you give me any advice? ( Fargo, N.D., e-mail)

A. The Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata) is indeed a beauty, but does require daily misting at room temperatures above 70 F. There is one that is similar to the Boston fern, but more compact, known as the Dallas fern that does not require daily misting to look good.

You may want to try the local florists to see if they have any. Even if they don't, I know it can be ordered out for you.

Q. What kind of fern is this? The picture I received with it said it was a Fluffy Ruffles but I don't believe it. (Fargo, N.D.)

A. Ferns are sure tough to identify from just one frond! But from looking at yours, I would say that it resembles a Boston Fern—Nephrolepis exaltata.

While not the Fluffy Ruffles, it is a very durable and beautiful fern! Enjoy!

Q. I've enclosed infected samples of ivy and ferns. I've sprayed them with soap suds, but evidently I'm not getting the bugs. Could you tell me what I could use to get rid of the bugs? (Tyndall, S.D.)

A. Your ivy foliage is very undersized and in need of some fertilizer. Repot, and sprinkle a couple of pinches of fertilizer. You should see some response in two to three weeks or less.

Obtain Safer's Insecticidal Soap to control the aphid and mite problem on your plants. Household soap does little good. It wouldn't hurt to rinse the foliage of your plants through the summer with tap water. That, too, will help control insect buildup and produce healthy plants.

Q. I am most anxious to learn how to transplant my 6-year-old staghorn fern. I would like to put it into a larger pot, but don't want to risk losing it. Thank you. (Enderlin, N.D.)

A. I think you worry too much! Staghorn (Platycerium spp.) ferns are amongst the easiest to grow.

They thrive in unmilled sphagnum moss, and on a once-a-week dunking in water. Go ahead and repot, packing the moss well saturated into the pot and around the base of the plant.

Keeping the compost or moss moist is important. If it is allowed to dry, it could become hydrophobic--water repelling.

Q: I’ve had this fern for 15 years and have transplanted it once. The leaves are about 2 to 3 feet long and the fern itself goes halfway up to the ceiling. It is truly
beautiful, but it is getting brown spots on it and also looks like it is drying up. I keep it moist, out of the sun, and fertilize once a month. What am I doing wrong?
(Jamestown, N.D.)

A: I would suggest repotting in a free-flowing container and watering with distilled water for about a month without fertilization to see if the plant begins
to recover. Assuming it does, then fertilize biweekly while it is showing active growth.

Q: I have a nice sized Boston Fern, but the fronds seems to be a rather pale green. I do use fertilizer, and it has encouraged new growth. (I just got the plant this summer). I would like darker color though. Would a grow light encourage darker foliage? I should mention that I live in northern Canada,(Yukon) and our available natural daylight right now is very limited. (E-mail reference, Yukon, Canada)

A: Thanks for mentioning where you live -- it makes a big difference!! Yes, a grow light would make a big difference. I know they are available at many discount chain stores like K-Mart and others. Also, a small shot of iron may help as well. Look for the chelated form to keep it readily available to the plant. Ferns also benefit from regular misting with distilled water, especially during long winter months when the central heating system is drying the air down to 10 percent relative humidity or lower.

Q: I have a nice Boston fern. The other day I found this frond on it with the perfect dots on the back. This is the only frond I saw on the whole plant like this. Could you please tell me what it is and if it is anything to worry about? (Tower City, N.D.)

A: First, thank you for an excellent sample. They are a rarity! What you are witnessing is the beginnings of the plantís sex life, or reproductive cycle. However, on the Boston fern (Nephrolepsis exaltata ĎBostoniensisí) those spores are sterile, or unable to propagate in this manner. All they are good for now is aesthetic value, so simply enjoy.

Back to Houseplants Menu
Back to the Hortiscope Table of Contents