Encyclopedia of Houseplants

Maidenhair Ferns Are Finicky Plant Divas, But Sure Are Beautiful

updated Sep 8, 2022
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
(Image credit: Rachel Jacks)

If you’ve ever grown (or killed) a maidenhair fern, you’ll know that these delicate, lacy beauties are quite picky when it comes to their growing conditions. As long as you provide the right conditions (plenty of moisture! avoiding direct sunlight!), this fern will reward you with gorgeous foliage. Here is what you need to know to keep a maidenhair fern thriving.

About Maidenhair Ferns

The name maidenhair fern actually refers to the Adiantum genus of about 200 different species that grow around the world, everywhere from New Zealand to the Andes. Many varieties are especially suited to growing on rock walls around waterfalls, where the water seepage and moisture in the air keep them from drying out.

Although there are species that live in a variety of conditions outdoors, I’ll be talking about the conditions that generally suit varieties commonly kept as houseplants.

(Image credit: Marisa Vitale)

The ASPCA doesn’t have a listing for maidenhair ferns, but the general consensus is that like most ferns, they’re non-toxic to dogs and cats.

How Much Light Does a Maidenhair Fern Need?

From temperature to water to sunlight, maidenhair ferns are divas in every way. We’ve featured plenty of tough-as-nails plants (spider plants, Chinese evergreens, cast-iron plants, and dracaena) that can tolerate a wide range of conditions, but maidenhair ferns are the opposite.

Direct sun will lead to scorching, but too little light will cause poor growth and yellowing fronds. If possible, place in a location that gets indirect morning or afternoon sun, such as a northern window, with no drafts.

Ideal Temperature and Humidity

A temperature of about 70°F (21°C) is ideal, but temperatures below 60°F (16°C) should be avoided. Maidenhair ferns can’t tolerate dry air, so if your home is dry, you’ll need to figure out how to provide your plant with the humidity it needs. I’ve had the best luck keeping mine in the bathroom, near a shower, but giving it regular misting allowed it to thrive in another location.

You can also increase the humidity near your plant by standing it on a water-filled pebble tray, or it may do well in a closed terrarium environment or under a glass cloche (but be extra careful to avoid direct sunlight in these situations.)

Care and Planting of Maidenhair Ferns

Due to the importance of moisture for this plant, it’s best to plant it in a plastic pot with drainage holes or keep it in the plastic pot it came in and place it in a more attractive outer cachepot.

Clay pots alone aren’t recommended because they allow the soil to dry out too quickly. And when the soil dries out, the fronds shrivel up and die immediately. This is not a plant you can be lackadaisical about watering because you also cannot let the roots sit in puddled water. The soil needs to be constantly kept moist but not soggy.

I can tell you what has worked for me by killing a few and then successfully growing a few. Mine are in plastic pots, inside a cachepot. Every few days, I take the plastic pot out and thoroughly water the plant in the sink. I let the water drip out until it stops, then I put it back in the cachepot. (Ease of watering is another reason why a bathroom is an ideal location for this plant.)

If your maidenhair fern dries out and its fronds turn brown and die, there may still be hope. Cut the fronds off at soil level, and keep the soil moist. The plant may re-grow after a few months. Even under the best conditions, your plant will end up with dead leaves and fronds. Regularly trim these away at soil level.

Fertilize monthly year-round with half-strength liquid fertilizer. It’s best to only repot when your plant is root-bound, and preferably in the spring. Repot in rich, high-quality soil, such as potting soil amended with 25% compost.

How to Propagate

When repotting, use a clean knife or sharp spade to divide the roots into pieces containing a minimum of two to three healthy fronds each. Plant each section in its own pot, and water well.

More Popular Plant Posts: