How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Tree Ferns

If you’re looking for a plant with beauty as rich as its history, a tree fern just might be your answer. Garden expert Christina Conner has all the details on caring for these gentle giants.

View of tree ferns in the forest. The tree fern is characterized by its tall, slender trunk, which is crowned with a canopy of large, graceful fronds. The trunk, known as a caudex, is covered in a fibrous layer of scales or hairs, giving it a rough texture. The fronds, which can reach impressive lengths, consist of a central rib with numerous leaflets arranged in a symmetrical pattern, creating a feathery appearance.

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When I was in college, my first big plant purchase (meaning – not rescued from the clearance rack or a mystery propagation) was an Australian tree fern named Felicia. Her lacy, delicate fronds added a Jurassic vibe to my indoor jungle of big-leaved banana trees, pothos, and fiddle-leaf figs.

There are over 650 species worldwide. They’re endemic to the understories of tropical, sub-tropical, and cool temperate climes throughout the world. They tower in the rainforests of Queensland, Tasmania, Hawaii, New Guinea, and New Zealand. Tree ferns thrive where the air is humid, and the soil is rich with organic matter.

Though beautiful, this is a finicky plant that would be a great option for an intermediate or advanced gardener. They require a lot of humidity and careful watering, which may prove challenging for a beginner gardener. Though Felicia didn’t survive the occasional neglect during holiday breaks and hectic finals weeks of my college years, my love of tree ferns remains.

Overview

Close-up of Dicksonia sellowiana in a garden with a blurred background. This exuberant fern is characterized by its towering, slender trunk, called a caudex, topped with a crown of luxuriant, finely-divided fronds. These fronds unfurl in an elegant, symmetrical pattern, forming a lush and voluminous canopy.
Plant type Houseplant, evergreen in temperate and tropical zones
Sun Exposure Dappled or filtered light – no direct sunlight
Watering requirements Weekly watering and high humidity
Maintenance Low
Soil Type neutral to slightly acidic (pH 5-6), humus-rich and well-drained soil 
Fertilizer monthly applications of organic fertilizer during the growing season

History

Top view of tree ferns. When viewed from above, tree ferns present a mesmerizing sight, with their towering, slender trunks crowned by a lush canopy of gracefully arching fronds. These fronts radiate outward in a symmetrical pattern, creating a captivating display of greenery.
Tree ferns, ancient survivors, thrive through millennia of evolution.

Tree ferns are older than dinosaurs. They predate the Jurassic period and go back at least 200 million years to the Triassic period, evolving alongside plants that became known as fern allies, like Equisetum hyemale, also known as Horsetail Rush. Incredibly, these Australian plants have even evolved to survive bushfires thanks to millennia of evolution and protection via their woolly, moist trunks. The unfurling of bright green fronds after a fire is a beautiful sign of resurgence.

Varieties

This article will focus on how to plant, grow, and care for the most common varieties found in plant stores: the Tasmanian Dicksonia antarctica and the Australian Sphaeropteris cooperi. 

Tasmanian Tree Fern

Close-up of a Tasmanian Tree Fern, Dicksonia antarctica, in a garden with flowering plants in the background. The Tasmanian Tree Fern is characterized by its majestic stature and graceful fronts. Rising from a fibrous trunk, known as a caudex, the fronds unfurl in an elegant, symmetrical pattern, forming a lush, emerald-green canopy. Each frond consists of a central rib adorned with numerous finely divided leaflets, creating a feathery and airy appearance.
Slow-growing Tasmanian tree fern thrives in cooler temperatures.
common-name common name Soft tree fern
botanical-name botanical name Dicksonia antarctica
genus genus Dicksonia
height height 12-18 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 9-10

D. antarctica can grow up to 30 feet in the wild, but cultivated varieties top out at about 12-18 feet. This southern Australian plant is more resistant to colder temperatures than other tree ferns, specifically S. cooperi.

The Tasmanian variety is on the shorter side. It’s very slow growing – depending on the environment, one to three inches of growth can be expected per year.

Australian Tree Fern

View of an Australian Tree Fern, Sphaeropteris cooperi, in a forest among vegetation. The Australian Tree Fern is distinguished by its imposing stature and luxuriant fronds. Towering above the forest floor, its fibrous trunk, or caudex, supports a crown of large, arching fronds that form an expansive canopy. Each frond is composed of a sturdy central rib adorned with rows of delicate, pinnate leaflets, which create a lush and feathery texture.
This is a towering fern that thrives in tropical regions.
common-name common name Lacy tree fern, Australian tree fern
botanical-name botanical name Sphaeropteris cooperi
genus genus Sphaeropteri
height height 15-30 feet
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 8-11

The more tropical of the two, S. cooperi stretches from the temperate rainforests of New South Wales to tropical far north Queensland. In its native areas, they grow up to 50 feet, with fronds stretching over 10 feet long. This is also the faster growing of the two. It can grow anywhere between half a foot to three feet per year, depending on the environment. 

While some gardeners have had luck overwintering Sphaeropteris cooperi in zone 8, some have experienced dieback during cold snaps. For this reason, we recommend planting it as a perennial only in zone 9b and above.

Note: This plant also recently underwent a name change from being known as Cyathea cooperi. You might see nurseries and plant sources still refer to this Australian plant by its former name. 

Other Species

Rough Tree Fern

Aerial view of Rough Tree Fern, also known as Cyathea australis. Adorned with rough, textured fronds, each bearing rows of finely divided leaflets. The fronds unfurl gracefully, forming a majestic silhouette against the forest backdrop, while their presence adds a sense of primeval elegance to the woodland landscape.
Rugged Alsophila australis thrives in cooler, sunlit environments.

Hailing from southern Queensland, this species prefers cooler climates and can be found in drier mountain areas. This Australian plant is slightly hardier than other species and can even tolerate direct sun. Its namesake, Rough Tree Fern, comes from the distinctive remnants of old fronds on its trunk. 

Hawaiian Tree Fern

View of Hawaiian Tree Fern in the forest. The Häpu‘u, or Hawaiian Tree Fern, known scientifically as Cibotium glaucum, presents a striking spectacle in its native habitat. Towering above the forest floor, its stout trunk, or pseudostem, supports a canopy of large, vibrant green fronds. Each frond unfolds gracefully, revealing a symmetrical arrangement of finely divided leaflets that impart a delicate and feathery appearance.
Protect native Hawaiian Tree Ferns from invasive species threats.

This tropical plant is native to most of the Hawaiian islands but is under threat from invasive species, deforestation, and overharvesting for gardening media. If you live in Hawaii, consider incorporating a Häpu‘u into your landscape. Note: S. cooperi should not be planted in Hawaii as it’s invasive and outcompetes native species.

Characteristics

Close-up of (Dicksonia antarctica) in a sunny tropical forest. It presents a majestic and lush appearance with its robust trunk, or caudex, supporting a crown of elegant fronds. Each frond unfurls gracefully, revealing a fan-like array of delicate, finely divided leaflets that give the tree fern its distinctive soft and feathery texture.
Nature’s architectural wonders with hidden reproductive secrets.

Despite the name, these ferns aren’t truly trees. Its “trunk” is one big modified rhizome covered with tiny hairs that absorb moisture and nutrients. From the crown, crosiers unfurl from a tight spiral over a few weeks to reveal new leaves called fronds. As they age, they drop, and new fronds continue to emerge in a slow cycle that builds height and turns young, shrublike plants into towering giants.

Underneath the blades of the fronds, you’ll see tiny raised red bumps called sori, which contain spores, the plant’s reproductive structures.   

How to Grow

The best way to acquire these Australian plants is to either buy from a nursery or online retailer or start from spore. Spores can be sourced from a friend or reputable source, like the American Fern Society spore exchange – the sooner you start a spore after collection, the better.

To learn more about collecting and germinating spores, check out our article on Sword Ferns – these spore collection tips also work for other species.

Planting

Close-up of a young fern seedling with a delicate and tender appearance, characterized by their small, curled fronds unfurling slowly as they grow. Each frond, initially tightly coiled, gradually expands to reveal intricate patterns of leaflets, lending the seedlings a graceful and intricate texture.
Versatile ferns thrive indoors or outdoors, adapting to varied climates.

Whether you plant your fern indoors or outdoors will depend on climate and personal preference – D. antarctica does well in USDA zones 9-10, and S. cooperi does best in the temperatures in zones 8-11. That said, both species are great as houseplants, so fear not if you live in a different region.

Light

Close-up of leaves of Dicksonia Antarctica. The leaves are an epitome of natural elegance, featuring large, feathery fronds that unfurl gracefully from a central crown. Each frond exhibits a symmetrical arrangement of finely divided leaflets, creating a lush and intricate texture.
Provide dappled light for optimal growth of understory ferns.

Remember that since they’re understory plants in their native habitats, they’ll do best with dappled or filtered light. Too much direct sunlight can cause the leaves to crisp and burn. 

Temperature

Close-up of Dicksonia Antarctica fern adorned with young lush fronds in a sunny garden. ising from a sturdy trunk, or caudex, the tree's crown bursts forth with a profusion of vibrant green fronds, each unfurling gracefully to reveal a symphony of delicate leaflets.
Choose your fern wisely based on climate and temperature tolerance.

If planted outside, D. antarctica can withstand temperatures down to 17°F (-8°C), while S. cooperi can only withstand temperatures down to 28°F (-2°C). Generally, warm areas like central and southern Florida, southern Texas and Louisiana, and parts of southern California are suitable habitats for outdoor planting. D. antarctica is sensitive to temperatures above 95°F (35°C), so S. cooperi would be a better option for hotter areas.

If you live in a borderline climate where temperatures rarely dip below the minimum suitable temperatures, these warm-weather-loving plants can be overwintered by wrapping the trunk and fronds with horticultural fleece and twine and filling the crown with straw. Standard horticultural fleece provides protection to 0°F (-18°C), so if your winters get colder than this, keep your fern potted and move it inside for the winter. 

They thrive in warm, humid environments, so a shady area with high humidity would be the perfect place for your fern in the summer.

Soil and Fertilizer

Close-up of a black shovel digging a hole in the soil. The soil is loose and dark brown in color. Dry autumn leaves lie on the soil. Fern plants grow nearby.
Nourish your fern with rich, acidic soil for vibrant growth.

Use a well-draining soil that’s neutral or slightly acidic and rich in humus, dark organic matter made up of decomposed plant and animal matter. Try to mimic the soil of the rainforest – compost, seaweed fertilizer, fish emulsion, manure, or earthworm castings all make great organic fertilizers for these native Australian plants.

During the growing season (late spring through summer), a monthly dose of diluted fertilizer will help produce healthy fronds. If they start turning from a rich, vibrant green to a diluted, yellowy shade, your fern needs to be fed.

Humidity

Close-up of a woman spraying potted fern plants on a windowsill. The pots are white and decorative. The fern plant is characterized by its elegant and feathery foliage, which unfurls from tightly coiled fronds. Each frond consists of a central stem adorned with delicate leaflets arranged in a symmetrical pattern, creating a lush and intricate texture.
Provide ample humidity in indoor environments.

Ample humidity is the number one key to a thriving tree fern – the trunk is composed of tiny, hair-like aerial roots that absorb moisture. Droopy, crispy, and/or falling fronds are all signs your fern doesn’t have adequate humidity – here are some tips to make sure your D. antarctica or Sphaeropteris cooperi stays humid and happy: 

  • Keep it near your shower if there’s enough sunlight – but if there isn’t and your fern isn’t too heavy, bring it with you and leave it outside the shower to soak up steam.
  • Place your fern near a humidifier and away from drafty windows, doors, air vents, or heaters – these will dry the plant out even faster.
  • Spritz the trunk and stems with a spray bottle every two to three days between waterings.

Basically – you’ll want to create a mini sauna minus the extreme heat.

Water

Close-up of green fronds of Dicksonia antarctica covered with water drops. The fronds are a captivating sight with their large, arching structure and finely divided leaflets.
Prevent plant tragedies by mastering watering techniques and soil checks.

Felicia met her demise when I forgot to leave my well-meaning plant sitter instructions on her misting protocol – she was beyond saving when I returned. To my horror, her leaves were crispy, and the soil was sopping wet. In addition to leaving instructions on their unique care, here’s how to prevent the same tragedy:  

The spray (even better – mist) attachment on your watering apparatus will be your best friend. Once a week, give the trunk a deep watering to let those trunk hairs absorb moisture and let the excess water filter into the soil. Keep the soil moist, but not soaking wet. Avoid watering the crown (where fronds unfurl), as this can lead to fatal crown rot. 

To prevent overwatering and root rot, always double-check for moisture before watering by dipping your finger two inches into the soil (the top layer should be dry) or by using a soil moisture meter.

Maintenance

Closeup view of a Cyathea cooperi fern stem peduncles and frond with red hairs, growing in a pot in the urban garden. Cyathea cooperi features a sturdy trunk crowned with a canopy of lush, arching fronds. The fronds, adorned with rows of finely divided leaflets, unfurl gracefully to create a vibrant and tropical ambiance.
Minimal pruning maintains fern aesthetics and provides natural mulch.

These plants don’t need any pruning – as the plant ages and grows taller, the older fronds will die off and can be clipped at the base for aesthetics and used as mulch or compost. If you’re keeping your fern outside – keep the fronds intact to protect the trunk from harsh elements and cooler temperatures.

Final Thoughts

Tree ferns are the perfect plant to add some visual interest and variety to your houseplant collection or garden if you’re lucky enough to live in one of their preferred climates. They’re not quite low-maintenance, but they make up for it with their intricate beauty and ancient history

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