Rabbit's foot fern is a perennial plant that, like others in the Davallia genus, has lacy upright fronds with a delightful, quirky trait—they grow from creeping scaly rhizomes that are covered with a fine, fur-like mat of hairs. These ferns are usually epiphytic (growing on other plants and absorbing nutrients and moisture through the air). Rabbit's foot ferns 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. Rabbit's foot fern grows best in humid conditions, out of direct light, in a slightly acidic potting mix, and thrives in temperatures above 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
|Common Name||Rabbit's foot fern, 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||6–36 in. tall, 12-40 in. wide|
|Soil Type||Loamy, moist|
|Soil pH||Acidic, neutral|
|Hardiness Zones||10–12 (USDA)|
|Native Areas||Asia, Africa, Europe|
Rabbit's Foot Fern Care
Here are the main care requirements for growing a rabbit's foot fern:
- Do not bury a majority of the rhizomes under the soil when planting, letting most of them grow uncontrolled or cascading from the container. Letting some of the rhizomes dive into the potting mix may be unavoidable.
- Give plants ample water and mist the rhizomes daily if not grown in a humid room.
- Flush the soil of accumulated fertilizer salts at least once a year. Soak the root ball to clean out fertilizer if you desire.
Rabbit's foot 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 also grow well under artificial lights.
Rabbit's foot 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.
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.
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 Rabbit's Foot Fern
The Davallia genus includes only a few species that 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.
Dead fronds can be removed as they appear, but no other pruning is necessary.
As with other clumping ferns, rabbit's foot ferns are relatively easy to propagate. You can divide the rhizome by splitting 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 the plant from rhizome cuttings. Here's how to do it:
- Use sterilized and sharp pruners to snip a 2- to 3-inch rhizome section with one or two fronds still attached.
- Fill a small container with peat-based potting mix and lay the rhizome on the surface, pinning it down with a small wire loop.
- Moisten the potting medium and place it in a plastic bag in a location with bright, indirect light.
- When additional fronds begin to develop, it means the new plant is well-rooted.
Potting and Repotting Rabbit's Foot Fern
Rabbit's foot ferns require a unique potting method—the rhizomatous roots are simply laid on the surface of peat-based potting mix and pinned into place, but it's okay to allow some of the new roots to grow down into the potting mix. The plants do not need frequent repotting and 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 and only when the plant is dormant, usually in the winter.
Use a shallow, well-draining pot for rabbit's foot fern. 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.
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
Rabbit's foot fern plants 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 too many of the creeping rhizomatous roots are buried rather than allowed to cover the top of the potting medium, they will likely develop root rot. Remember that these plants do not draw moisture from the soil, but rather from the air.
Common Problems with Rabbit's Foot Fern
Growing these plants well requires a somewhat careful touch. Be aware of the following signs that indicate an issue that needs to be resolved for a healthier rabbit's foot fern.
Scorched or Burned Fronds
The most common complaint with rabbit's foot fern is damage to the fronds (leaves). 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. Also 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.
Discolored or Limp Fronds
- If the fronds are yellowed, with brown tips, the plant probably needs more humidity.
- If the fronds are pale in color and seem stunted, the plant probably needs more fertilizer.
- Limp fronds usually indicate too much water.
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. Occasional division will be necessary.
Davallia solida var. fejeensis. North Carolina State Extension.