How to Grow and Care for Rabbit's Foot (Davallia) Fern

davallia fern indoors

The Spruce / Anastasia Tretiak

The Davallia genus of ferns includes about three dozen species with lacy upright fronds that all share a delightful, quirky trait—they grow from creeping scaly rhizomes that are covered with a fine, fur-like mat of hairs. This fuzzy rhizome is the source of the common names for a select group of Davallia species commonly grown as houseplants: rabbit's foot, hare's foot, squirrel's foot, deer's foot. In their native habitat, these ferns are usually epiphytic—growing on other plants and absorbing nutrients and moisture from the air. In indoor cultivation, they are frequently grown as hanging or potted plants with the exposed hairy roots spilling out of the container or pinned to the sides of moss baskets.

New houseplants are best started from divisions or root cuttings in the spring as they emerge from a semi-dormant winter period, though divisions can be successful at any time. These ferns have a medium growth rate that can take several years to develop the interesting ball of hairy exposed roots, but once established in good growing conditions, a rabbit's foot fern can thrive as a houseplant for many years.

Common Name Rabbit's foot, hare's foot, squirrel's foot, deer's foot fern
Botanical Name Davallia spp.
Family Davalliaceae or Polypodiaceae
Plant Type Perennial, rhizome
Mature Size 6–24 in. tall, 12-40 in. wide
Sun Exposure Partial
Soil Type Loamy, moist
Soil pH Acidic, neutral
Hardiness Zones  10–11 (USDA)
Native Areas Asia, Africa, Europe

Davallia Care

Though hardy in zones 10 and 11, Davallia ferns are almost never grown as garden plants, they are popular as unique indoor houseplants. Growing these plants well requires a somewhat careful touch. They have to be given ample water to thrive and should be grown in a humidified room or given a daily misting of the rhizomes. But they also do best when certain common things—such as repotting and heavy fertilizing—are neglected a little bit. In general, they dislike being disturbed much, and once you've found a good home for one, it will not react well to changing conditions.

Although the rhizomes do extend below the surface of the soil, they should never be buried. These roots serve something of the same function as orchid roots. They cling to surfaces and draw moisture and nutrients from the air and environment. Instead, let the rhizomes grow uncontrolled until they cascade from the container and add a unique visual note to your fern. Pinning the exposed roots to the outside of a moss basket is a common way to grow these ferns.

Also, be aware that these plants are very sensitive to accumulated fertilizer salts. Make sure to flush the soil very well at least once a year, or you can even soak the root ball to clean out fertilizer.

overhead view of a davallia fern
The Spruce / Anastasia Tretiak
closeup of davallia fern
The Spruce / Anastasia Tretiak 
davallia fejeensis
The Spruce / Anastasia Tretiak
davallia canariensis
skymoon13 / Getty Images
davallia trichomanoides
Bigman365 / Getty Images 

Light

Davallia ferns do best in dappled light or partial shade conditions. Indoors, a north-facing or east-facing window is ideal. Never expose them to direct sunlight unless they've been carefully acclimated. They can also be grown well under artificial lights.

Soil

Davallia ferns like a loamy, rich soil with plenty of peat. Drainage is not a paramount concern (although they dislike being waterlogged). A peat-based potting mix will naturally have a slightly acidic pH, which these plants enjoy.

Water

These ferns like consistently moist soil, which usually means dampening the growing medium or misting the exposed rhizomes every other day—or even daily. It's important not to let the rhizomes dry out, which will weaken and possibly kill the plants. The October to March period is a semi-dormant time for these ferns, so watering should be somewhat reduced during this time.

Temperature and Humidity

Rabbit's foot fern (and the other Davallia species) are best grown at temperatures above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. While these plants are less demanding of high humidity than many ferns, it's still important to mist regularly or use a room humidifier to prevent the rhizomes from drying out.

Fertilizer

Feed with a weak liquid fertilizer every two to three weeks throughout the growing season. For the amount to use, follow the product label instructions. In late fall through spring (October to March), feeding can be reduced.

Types of Davallia Fern

The Davallia genus is interesting throughout but only a few species are regularly found in cultivation, all with very similar appearance and care needs:

  • Davallia solida var. fejeensis (also known as Davallia fejeensis) is the species most often known as rabbit's foot fern. This is the most common species sold in cultivation, with fronds as much as 18 inches long.
  • D. canariensis (hare's foot fern) grows up to 20 inches tall and as much as 40 inches wide. Its trailing rhizomatous roots are larger and coarser than those of rabbit's foot fern.
  • D. trichomanoides (squirrel's foot fern) has shorter fronds, about 6 inches in length, with smaller exposed rhizomes.

Most of the species have airy, feathery foliage. The more delicate varieties require more water than their thicker cousins.

Pruning

Dead fronds can be removed as they appear, but no other pruning is necessary.

Propagating

As with other clumping ferns, the Davallia ferns are relatively easy to propagate. You can divide the rhizome and split your fern in two, potting up each half into a new container. It's best to perform this operation on older plants so you can get the most viable rhizome possible. If you don't wish to fully divide, it's also easy to propagate from rhizome cuttings. Here's how to do it:

  1. Use sharp pruners to snip a 2- to 3-inch rhizome section with one or two fronds still attached.
  2. Fill a small container with peat-based potting mix and lay the rhizome on the surface, pinning it down with a small wire loop.
  3. Moisten the potting medium and place it in a plastic bag in a location with bright, indirect light.
  4. When additional fronds begin to develop, it means the new plant is well-rooted.

Potting and Repotting Davallia Ferns

Davallia ferns require a unique potting method—the rhizomatous roots are simply laid on the surface of peat-based potting mix and pinned into place, allowing new roots to grow down into the potting mix. They do not need frequent repotting and, in fact, should be encouraged to overgrow their pots a little bit. This is especially true for hanging plants, which look better when they cascade slightly and their unique rhizomes are visibly protruding from the container. For best growth, repot every other year.

Rabbit's foot fern is often grown in a moss basket, with the rhizomes pinned down to the outside of the basket as they develop and cascade over the sides.

Overwintering

These ferns enter a semi-dormant period in the winter, and fertilizing and watering should be somewhat reduced from October to March.

Common Pests & Plant Diseases

Davallia are vulnerable to pests including aphids, mealybugs, scale, and whiteflies. If possible, identify the infestation as early as possible and treat with the least toxic option, such as a horticultural oil.

If the creeping rhizomatous roots are buried rather than allowed to cover the top of the potting medium, they will likely develop rot. Remember that these plants do not draw moisture from the soil, but rather from the air.

Common Problems with Rabbit's Foot Fern

The most common complaint with rabbit's foot fern is damage to the fronds. Ferns in general, including rabbit's foot fern, are sensitive to chemicals, and the fronds are easily burned or damaged by household air pollutants, even such innocuous substances as tobacco smoke and scented candles. And you should avoid spraying chemical insecticides on the plant, relying instead on natural pesticides, such as horticultural oil.

Rabbit's foot fern can also be easily scorched by direct sunlight. Remember that this plant prefers bright indirect light, and any direct sunlight it receives should be morning light, if possible.

If the fronds are yellowed, with brown tips, the plant probably needs more humidity. Limp fronds, on the other hand, usually indicate too much water. If the fronds are pale in color and seem stunted, the plant probably needs more fertilizer.

FAQ
  • Can I grow rabbit's foot fern in the outdoor garden?

    Outdoor cultivation in garden soil isn't very practical. These are epiphytic ferns that normally attach themselves to trees and other plants, their roots attaching to crevices or hollows in the bark. You can, however, move your potted Davallia fern to a shady patio or deck for the warmer months, but it should be brought back indoors before temperatures begin to dip below 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

  • What is the difference between the Davallia species commonly grown as houseplants?

    Rabbit's foot fern (D.solida var. feeensis) has more delicate, lacy fronds and its rhizomes have a finer fuzzy covering. The other species have coarser fronds and rhizomes that are notably rough and scaly.

  • How long does rabbit's foot fern live?

    If you establish a good pattern for watering and feeding, it is common to see rabbit's foot ferns live for 10 years or even much longer, but occasional division will be necessary.

Article Sources
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  1. Davallia solida var. fejeensis. North Carolina State Extension.