Maidenhair Fern

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Maidenhair ferns are soft and lacy plants which have a variety of uses both indoors and outside.

With more than 200 species of maidenhair and many more cultivars, choosing a favourite may be difficult, but they are attractive and rewarding plants to grow.

They have one major drawback: if allowed to dry out, even briefly, the foliage quickly browns and the plant appears dead. As Don Burke explained recently however, maidenhair ferns have a Lazarus quality, which means with the right care, they can come back to life from what looks like certain death.

Plant details

Common name: Maidenhair fern

Botanical name: Adiantum spp.

Description: Finely foliaged, evergreen plants, that can grow to 1 metre in height (about 3′) but are more commonly smaller growing. Maidenhair ferns grow from underground rhizomes and have brownish/black leaf stalks from which the fronds unfold to display their apple-green leaflets.

The range of leaf shapes and growth habits is staggering. Foliage comes in all forms and sizes, some fine leafed, others variegated, and some scalloped. Some species are certainly tougher than others. Following is a selection you may find at the garden centres and their best uses:

Adiantum raddianum ‘Fragrans’ – The most widely grown maidenhair in Australia, and one of the easiest to grow, is the Fragrans (Adiantum raddianum ‘Fragrans’). It is best grown indoors but is not suited to growing outdoors in the ground.

Adiantum aethiopicum – The wild Australian native species, Adiantum aethiopicum, is a tough species that grows well outdoors in moist, shaded locations. It is often sold in nurseries as ‘Valley Mist’. It is not well suited to use indoors as it needs a well lit spot.

Adiantum hispidulum – The rough maidenhair (Adiantum hispidulum) also prefers being outdoors. It is a tall growing plant that tolerates a little more light than the common maidenhair, A. aethiopicum.


Indoors: Maidenhair ferns have a variety of uses indoors. They can be grown indoors in pots or hanging baskets in a brightly lit position out of draughts. They are also a feature of some terrariums. Different maidenhair foliage is also used as a filler foliage in flower arrangements.

Patios and ferneries: They are also a feature of shaded outdoor spots such as east or southerly facing patios or the traditional fernery, where they are also grown in pots or hanging baskets.

Outdoors: the native species, A. aethiopicum, can be planted in shady rock crevices or used as an outdoor groundcover plant in a moist, shaded spot such as beside a pond.


  • to be kept moist
  • a brightly lit position when indoors but prefers a very shaded spot if planted outdoors
  • a sheltered position away from draughts
  • regular applications of diluted liquid fertilisers (such as fish emulsion or Nitrosol)


  • being allowed to dry out, even for a few hours (so keep well watered)
  • frost (best grown as an indoor or patio plant if in cold or harsh climates)
  • dark positions inside the house (select a well-lit position but not direct sunlight which can burn foliage)
  • draughts (do not place in windy spots such as corridors)

Resurrecting your dead maidenhair

If your maidenhair fern does dry out and its fronds turn brown, don’t despair as it shouldn’t be considered dead until there has been no new growth for 18 months. To give it a new lease of life try the following method:

with the plant still in the pot, cut the fronds off at ground level
place the pot outside in a shady spot where it will hopefully regenerate after a few months.
try repotting your fern using a high quality potting mix to which Nutricote or Osmocote may be added.

Some gardening advice recommends burning the dead foliage of maidenhair ferns. While it may be successful, it can also be rather dangerous so it is preferable to cut away the dead foliage as directed above.

If the plant has only just begun to dry out, plunge the pot into a bucket of water, keeping it submerged until the air bubbles stop rising to the surface. This will rewet the soil.

Watering tip

One way to keep your indoor maidenhair ferns from drying out is to plant them in a self-watering pot. These pots allow the plant to take up as much water as is needed at a time. The only thing you need to do is to remember to top up the reservoir as required. Self-watering pots are usually sold where you buy maidenhair ferns. Prices start at around $5.95.

Pest problems

Although neglect and drying out are the most common problems with maidenhair ferns they can also suffer from insect attack. Keep an eye out for the following pests:

  • the maidenhair fern aphid, which causes the fronds to curl up and turn black. Hose off aphids, or spray with Confidor (spray plants outdoors in a well-ventilated spot).
  • scale (brown or black lumps on the stems or leaves) and or mealybugs (fluffy white insects which look like tiny pieces of cotton wool). To control lightly spray with Folimat, Confidor or PestOil (applied at half the recommended rate). Spray plants outdoors in a well-ventilated spot. Badly infested plants should be discarded.

Did you know?

The word Adiantum comes from the Greek adiantos, which means ‘unwetted’ and refers to the way that maidenhair fern fronds repel water.

Cost and tips on buying plants

Maidenhair ferns differ in price depending on the pot size. These can range from $8.50 for 140mm (5″) pots through to $22.00 for a 200mm (8″) hanging basket.

Don’s tip: The fern shown on ‘Burke’s Backyard’ was priced at $12.95 for a 185mm (7″) pot. It had several different varieties of maidenhair fern, each with different leaf shapes, in the one pot. Don suggested the pot was a good buy as what appeared to be one large plant could be split up into several different plants and repotted to give three or four distinct leaf types.

Our segment was filmed at Swane’s Nursery, 490 Galston Road, Dural, NSW, 2158. Phone: (02) 9651 1322.

Further reading

For more information on maidenhair ferns consult Christopher J. Goudey’s book Maidenhair Ferns in Cultivation by Lothian. For information on ferns generally consult A Handbook of Ferns also by C. J. Goudey (Lothian).