How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Maidenhair Ferns

Maidenhair Ferns add a touch of whimsical enchantment to the shade garden and make excellent houseplants. In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss explains everything you need to know to get started growing these pretty plants.

Emerald fronds of a maidenhair fern carpet the view, their delicate limbs interlacing like a lush green tapestry. From above, the fern resembles a miniature forest, sunlight dappling through the feathery leaves. This vibrant blanket of nature's artistry invites you to explore its intricate beauty.

Contents

Maidenhair Fern Overview

This close-up captures the delicate unfolding of a young Adiantum maidenhair fern leaf. The frond unfurls gracefully from a tightly coiled fiddlehead, its paper-thin segments radiating outwards like the spokes of a fan. The new growth emerges a vibrant lime green, contrasting beautifully with the dark, wiry stems that anchor it to the frond
Plant Type Deciduous, semi-evergreen herbaceous perennial
Family Pteridaceae
Subfamily Vittarioideae
Genus Adiantum
Species about 250
Native Area North and South America, East Asia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Europe
Exposure Bright indirect light
Height 1’-3’
Watering Requirements Moderate to high
Pests and Diseases Scale, mites, snails, slugs, mealy bugs, aphids, root rot, botrytis, rust, powdery mildew, southern blight
Maintenance Low
Soil Type Rich, loam, well-drained

What are Maidenhair Ferns?

A lush carpet of Northern Maidenhair ferns (Adiantum pedatum) growing on a forest floor. The delicate, fan-shaped leaflets of the ferns are arranged in a spiral pattern on thin, wiry stalks. The ferns appear to be thriving in the dappled sunlight filtering through the trees above.
These sturdy, low-maintenance plants are perfect for shade gardens and indoor spaces.

If you are a frequent visitor of the local nursery, chances are good that you have come in contact with a maidenhair fern. These eye-catching plants are very popular for their beautiful foliage, which appears extremely delicate and fragile but is quite sturdy and tolerant.

Ferns have some interesting habits, particularly surrounding their reproduction, that are different from most other plant types. These low-maintenance, beautiful plants make a fantastic addition to the outdoor shade garden or houseplant collection. Let’s take a look at them and discuss how they can be added to your own collection.

History

A close-up of a maidenhair fern leaf. The delicate, scalloped leaves unfurl from a dark background, resembling a dancer’s skirt. Tiny ferns, like newborn fingers, reach out from the top of the frond, adding to the sense of delicate, unfolding life.
The origin of the maidenhair fern’s name is linked to its thin, delicate, black stem resembling dark hair strands.

The name is thought to have been derived from the appearance of the stems, which are thin, delicate, and black, resembling thick strands of dark hair. 

The plant has extensive recorded use as a medicinal preparation, particularly by indigenous populations in North America, Australia, and East Asia. In modern use, it is mostly listed as an ornamental plant to be kept in the shade garden or as a houseplant

Native Area

A close-up of delicate green maidenhair fern fronds with thin, wiry black stems. The tips of the fronds are transitioning to a brownish-yellow color, adding a touch of autumnal beauty to the scene. The fern grows amidst a backdrop of mossy rocks and weathered wooden planks, suggesting a damp, forested environment.
Diverse and widespread, these ferns thrive across most continents in varied climates and habitats.

The Northern maidenhair fern is native to North America, the Himalayas, and temperate parts of East Asia. They are found naturally in Zones 3-8 in cool, shaded woodland areas. They typically grow in rich, moist soil types.

There are many species of maidenhair fern found in Alaska to Southern California, Eastern Canada, and the United States. They are also found in Mexico, as well as the Rocky Mountain region, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.

The Southern maidenhair fern is mainly found in the Southeastern and Gulf states and across Utah and California. These are a widespread and varied genus of ferns that are found on most continents with varied habits and climate hardiness. 

Characteristics

A close-up of several delicate, apple-green maidenhair fern fronds. Delicate black veins run throughout the leaves, which shimmer in the dappled sunlight, adding depth and dimension to the shot. The veins of the leaves are visible, and they look like tiny, delicate threads.
These perennials are mostly deciduous or semi-evergreen.

This family is known for its delicate and beautiful foliage. The Northern maidenhair fern, or A. pedantum, has erect leaves on branching leafstalks (petioles). Each petiole branches into two stalks, each of which bears additional featherlike stalks. The new fiddleheads appear pink in the spring. 

The Southern maidenhair fern, or A. capillus-veneris, has fronds with a drooping or weeping habit. The petioles are unbranching, and leaflets extend off of straight leafstalks. 

These perennial ferns grow from short, creeping rhizomes. The leaflets are triangular or wedge-shaped and divided by two or more, which creates a fan shape with lobes at the end. This pattern of splitting is called dichotomous venation. 

Beneath the leaves, spores are produced during the summer months. When the weather is very dry or cold, the plant sheds its leaves. As with all ferns, maidenhair fern is non-flowering. 

There are about 250 species of Adiantum ferns. They are mostly deciduous, but in certain climates, they are semi-evergreen and only lose their leaves in very dry or uncharacteristically cold weather. 

Where to Buy

As a highly popular plant used both as a houseplant and a landscaping element, maidenhair ferns can be found widely in most nurseries. They can be purchased as rootstock as well and found widely through online retailers. 

Planting

A lush Southern maidenhair fern thriving in a vibrant red pot. Delicate, light green fronds unfurl from the center, their veins tracing intricate patterns that resemble black thread. The contrast between the fern's vibrant green foliage and the stark white background creates a sense of drama and focus.
Mature ferns tolerate partial sun, but young plants need protection from direct afternoon sunlight.

Maidenhair ferns make very good houseplants as they prefer temperate weather and indirect light conditions. Indoors, they should be kept in a container with well-draining soil in an area of the home that gets bright but indirect light, as the leaves are sensitive to direct sunlight. 

Outdoors, these plants are woodland understory plants that do well under a tree canopy. Once mature, they grow fine with partial sun, but as young, tender plants, they should be sheltered from direct sun, particularly in the afternoon. 

Ideally, your fern should be planted in the spring, but this is not a hard and fast rule. These ferns can be planted at any time during their growing period. They should be kept consistently moist over their first growing season. Without adequate moisture, they are unlikely to establish strong roots.

How to Grow

Maidenhair ferns are low maintenance and easy to grow in the right conditions. The plants are surprisingly sturdy despite their delicate appearance. They have excellent cold tolerance, growing as perennials in Zones 3-8.

Light

A close-up of delicate maidenhair ferns, their fronds unfurling from slender black stems. The fern's verdant green leaves contrast with the subtle browning at their tips, hinting at the passage of time and the delicate nature of life.
Maidenhair ferns thrive best out of direct sunlight, tolerating partial sun with ample watering.

In terms of sun exposure, maidenhair ferns prefer to be kept out of direct sun. In my experience, they tolerate partial sun, but it is very important to keep them well watered if they get any direct sunlight. Bright but indirect sunlight is preferred. Dappled light is also a desirable amount of exposure for these ferns. 

As understory plants, they don’t get much direct light in their natural environment. The light that they receive is filtered through the tree canopy overhead. These pretty plants make a wonderful addition to any shaded spot in the garden that needs some texture and beauty.

Water

A close-up of a maidenhair fern frond. The frond is a deep shade of green, with water drops clinging to its finely divided leaves sparkling like diamonds in the light. The background is dark and out of focus, making the fern the star of the show.
To ensure optimal health, keep soil consistently moist and don’t let it dry out completely.

Consistent moisture is an important factor in caring for your maidenhair fern. As a houseplant, as long as your container has proper drainage, you should water your fern before the soil dries. While you don’t want to keep the soil soggy, it should never dry completely. 

As a garden plant, particularly in the summer, your fern can be watered daily to every other day. This plant will thrive when it has an ample supply of moisture. 

Soil

A pile of well-rotted compost. The compost is dark brown and crumbly, with some small pieces of recognizable organic matter, such as leaves, twigs, and bits of vegetable scraps. The dark color and crumbly texture of the compost indicate that it is ready to be used as a soil amendment or mulch.
Enhance growth by enriching the soil with compost, manure, or worm castings, especially in alkaline pH conditions.

Maidenhair ferns appreciate rich, well-drained soil that has good moisture retention. As an indoor plant, mix some well-rotted compost in with your potting soil to give your fern an extra boost of nutrients. 

In the garden, amending your soil with compost, manure, or worm castings helps it retain more moisture and increases the available nutrients. An alkaline pH is best, but these plants adapt to a more acidic pH if need be. 

Temperature and Humidity

A group of delicate maidenhair fern fronds. Each frond is made up of many tiny leaflets, which have scalloped edges and a satiny sheen. Tiny dewdrops glisten on the surface of the leaflets, like miniature jewels.
Northern species tolerate the cold; Southern species prefer warmth; indoor humidity around 60% is crucial.

In terms of climate and temperature, different species have different levels of cold tolerance. Northern maidenhair fern is very cold tolerant, while Southern maidenhair fern prefers things a bit warmer. It is frost tolerant, however, and the roots can survive temperatures as low as 10°F (-12°C).

Moisture is very important for these plants, and humidity is a piece of the moisture puzzle in this case. Maidenhair fern needs a humidity level of about 60%, which is a bit higher than most people prefer indoors, so using a pebble tray or humidifier will keep your fern’s leaves looking lush and healthy. 

Fertilizer

Two bottles of indoor plant fertilizer and a bag of yellow fertilizer pellets. The bottle in the middle is labeled "Liquid All Purpose Plant Food." The bottle on the right is labeled "Magnesium Sulfate." The bag of pellets is not labeled, but the pellets are yellow and look like they are made of some kind of organic material.
Beware of the delicate roots with tiny hairs, as they can suffer and burn from over-fertilization.

During the growing seasons, which are spring and summer, your fern benefits from a monthly dose of liquid fertilizer. You can use a balanced, all-purpose fertilizer or one that is higher in nitrogen. Fertilizers made specifically to increase blooming are unnecessary, as ferns do not flower or reproduce from seed. 

For your indoor fern, to give your plant a dose of nutrients coupled with a bit of moisture, you can mist your fern’s foliage once a week with a heavily diluted solution of fertilizer and water. Ferns take in water through their stems as well as roots, so feeding this way is particularly effective for this type of plant. 

Maintenance

A person's hand using sharp scissors to trim the dry, brown fronds of an Adiantum fern. The fern is potted in a small, brown clay pot and sits on a wooden table. The person's fingers are gently holding the frond while the scissors snip away at the dead leaves.
They’re slow-growing, usually taking about three years to reach mature size.

Your fern will need little care during the growing season. You should remove any dead or damaged foliage throughout the year to keep the plant looking healthy and beautiful. The main pruning event takes place in the early spring. When the weather begins to warm, remove all of the dead foliage from the past year, cutting the stalks down to the ground. 

Maidenhair ferns do not like to be pot-bound, so container-grown plants should be repotted when their root system fills their present container. Move your plant into a new container that is slightly, but not too much, larger than the present container. These are typically regarded as slow-growing plants, and they take about three years to reach their mature size. 

Growing in Containers

A maidenhair fern in a small clay pot, set against a gloomy and blurry background. The delicate, light green fronds unfurl gracefully from the center of the pot, their veins branching out like tiny fingers. The contrast between the fern's vibrant green and the dark background creates a sense of mystery and intrigue.
Maintain consistent soil moisture by using nutrient-rich soil and watering regularly.

Moisture is a very important component in caring for your maidenhair fern. For this reason, the ideal potting situation for this plant is a plastic pot with drainage holes in the bottom. The plastic pot can then be placed in a more decorative container and removed to water it. 

Use a potting soil that holds moisture, and enrich the soil with well-rotted compost or other additions that are nutrient-rich. Worm castings are great for mixing with potting soil to increase nutrient density. 

Water regularly. The soil should never dry out completely, and ideally, it should stay moist without allowing water to pool. When you water your fern, remove the inner plastic pot from the outer container and water deeply, then allow the excess water to drain from the container. 

Propagation

The hands are cradling the fern’s stem and root ball. The roots are light brown and fibrous, and some soil is clinging to them. The person’s hands are also dirty with soil, suggesting that they have been carefully transplanting the plant.
To propagate maidenhair ferns, divide rhizomes with leaves, then plant in moist soil, avoiding direct sunlight.

Propagating ferns from spores is a more complicated process than propagating by division, so division is the common way to increase the number of ferns in your garden. If your plant is growing in a container, remove the root system from the container, loosen the soil, and cut a portion of the rhizome that has some small leaves attached. 

In the ground, digging up the whole plant isn’t usually necessary, but you can do this if you are making many divisions. If not, loosen the soil around the base of the plant and use a sharp knife to slice through the rhizome without disturbing the parent plant. 

Place your cutting in a container with moist, rich potting soil and keep it out of direct sunlight, allowing it to develop roots. When you see new growth, move your baby plants to a spot that gets some indirect light and watch them grow!

Common Problems

Maidenhair ferns don’t have many issues to contend with, especially as houseplants. However, they can be particular about their environment and tend to like things to be and stay a certain way. If you notice your plant looking less perky, there are a few issues to consider.

Pests

A close-up of a green aphid on a fern leaf with a shiny, waxy body and transparent wings. The aphid is perched on the underside of a fern leaf, which is green and has delicate, feathery fronds. The background of the image is blurred, so the focus is on the aphid and the fern leaf.
Maidenhair ferns are prone to pests; neem oil indoors and coffee grounds outdoors help deter them.

Insect infestation can be an issue for maidenhair ferns. Aphids, spider mites, scales, and a few others can be the culprits behind suffering foliage and chewed-on leaves. Spider mites, in particular, like to take up residence on these plants and are difficult to get rid of. 

As an indoor plant, if you notice what appears to be an infestation issue, isolate the plant to avoid spreading those pesky insects to other plants, and treat the plant with neem oil or insecticidal soap. You likely need to treat the plant more than once because there is usually more than one generation to get rid of, and not all treatments kill the eggs in addition to the adults. 

In the garden, snails and slugs can be a problem for your ferns. It is easiest to set traps and place obstacles for these pests to encounter to deter them from getting close. Coffee grounds, diatomaceous earth, and beer are all deterrents for snails and slugs in the garden. 

Diseases

A delicate maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris) growing on a mossy rock. The fern has fronds of bright green leaves that are fan-shaped and have paper-thin segments. Some of the older leaves are turning brown and drying out.
Fungal diseases in maidenhair ferns can be managed with copper-based fungicides and improved airflow.

Because of their affinity for moist soil and humidity, maidenhair ferns tend to be vulnerable to fungal and bacterial diseases. Powdery mildew is a common threat, and leaf spot diseases are not uncommon.

Pre-treat your plant with a copper-based fungicide to prevent certain fungal diseases, and make sure there is adequate air circulation. Thinning out your plants in the garden on occasion can help to create movement of air through the foliage, which will go a long way towards avoiding these kinds of issues.

When it comes to powdery mildew, you can’t treat with copper fungicides effectively. Instead, monitor your plant and remove diseased foliage as you notice it. Prune for airflow, and focus on prevention by avoiding planting in areas where powdery mildew was present previously.

Dry Leaves

A close-up of a bunch of dry, brown suplir fern leaves which are curled and wrinkled, and some are broken or torn. The veins in the leaves are visible, and the edges of the leaves are serrated. The leaves are brown and brittle, and they look like they are about to crumble.
Insufficient moisture may cause the delicate fern leaves to become dry and brittle, impacting overall health.

If you notice the leaves on your fern looking dry and crunchy, the issue is likely related to moisture. Since these plants need a lot of moisture to thrive, when they are deprived of it for even a brief period, the foliage can be affected. If you are regularly watering your plant and the leaves still look dry, the issue is either too little humidity or too much sun.

Maidenhair ferns need protection from direct sunlight because it can burn their delicate leaves. Make sure your plant is not getting too much direct sun, especially in the afternoon when the sunlight is most intense. You can increase the humidity around your plant by misting it daily or using a pebble tray or humidifier. 

Overwatering

A close-up of a Himalayan maidenhair fern. The delicate fronds of the fern are covered in tiny dewdrops, which glisten like diamonds in the sunlight. The dewdrops have formed on the fern's leaves overnight, as the cool night air has condensed on the plant's surface.
While maidenhair ferns thrive in moisture, overwatering is a risk, especially in poorly-draining containers.

Even though they love moisture, it is possible to overwater a maidenhair fern, and in fact, it is very easy to do if your container doesn’t drain well or the plant is located in an area that regularly stays wet. 

Make sure that the container or location where your fern is planted has adequate drainage. This is the number one most effective way to prevent the pathogen that causes root rot in this and other plants that are moisture-loving but have sensitive roots. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Can maidenhair fern grow in water?

No, the crown of your fern should never be submerged in water. Submerging the roots for an extended period of time can cause them to deteriorate and rot. They do, however, make good terrarium plants.

Can my fern survive the winter outdoors?

It depends on the species. Some maidenhair ferns are very cold-tolerant. The Northern maidenhair fern can be grown outdoors as far north as Zone 3. The Southern maidenhair fern is only hardy to Zone 7.

Is maidenhair fern considered invasive?

Some species are considered invasive in certain places where they are non-native. Opt for the species native to your region and check invasive lists in your location before choosing garden plants. Keeping your ferns in containers will prevent them from spreading.

Final Thoughts

Maidenhair ferns have a lush but delicate beauty that makes them wonderful as house plants and in the garden. While they are particular about their environment, once planted properly, they are easy to care for and add a lot of beauty and texture to their space. As a bonus, they are safe for pets, so they make great houseplants for pet owners, as well. 

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