The Japanese fern tree, or Filicium decipiens, is a pleasant and graceful specimen whose small size makes it ideal for your yard or home landscape. The tree is most easily recognizable for its odd foliage – its leaves are long and thin and protrude from the stems in a fernlike manner, which gives the tree its common name. The name “Japanese fern tree” is actually a misnomer – F. decipiens is native to Africa and the Indian subcontinent, not Japan, and it’s not a fern.
However, its fernlike leaves are packed together compactly, giving the tree a dense crown that provides good shade. The crown of the Japanese fern tree is spherical and symmetrical, and as the tree ages it steadily expands outward to achieve a wonderful shape. It also blooms small, inconspicuous white flowers. Though native to the East, this tree grows very well in tropical conditions because of its high needs for direct sunlight and warmth: it’s particularly popular in South Florida and will flourish in any area that approximates the tropical climate. This is a fairly slow grower that doesn’t require trimming or much effort on your end: once planted in the right area, the Japanese fern tree will slowly expand over the years to a maximum of about 25 feet. Make sure not to plant it too close to any existing structures so its round crown has room to fully develop.
- Light: Lots of direct sunlight is necessary for this tree to thrive.
- Water: Water regularly, but make sure not to soak it – giving the tree a few days for its soil to dry out before you water it again is a good idea.
- Temperature: Warm, tropical temperatures. Not frost tolerant.
- Soil: Strongly alkaline soil is best. Make sure its drainage is good as well to avoid the possibility of root rot.
- Fertilizer: F. decipiens should be fertilized in the fall, spring, and summer with a granular fertilizer. Feeding during the winter isn’t necessary.
The Japanese fern tree propagates by seed. Natural germination should work just fine: sow the seeds in the fall and give them time, and they should begin to germinate in the spring. Make sure not to sow them too deep. It can help to soak the seeds in water at room temperature for about 24 hours prior to planting in order to soften the exterior and increase chances of germination. It’s also important that the seeds don’t get planted in soaked or soggy soil. Consider adding composted cow manure to the soil in order to help the seeds germinate well.
The Japanese fern tree is fairly idiosyncratic and has few close relatives. Its genus, Filicium, is rare and contains limited species. There is also some confusion about taxonomy – for instance, F. longifolium, listed in some botanical sources as a relative of decipiens, may actually consist of several different and obscure species all lumped together under one name. The Japanese fern tree has no major cultivars. Its name, decipiens, derives from the word “deceptive”.
Due to its pleasing shape and easy growth habit, the Japanese fern tree has lots of possible uses in your landscape as a shade tree, a backdrop for flowers, or in pairs to line a pathway.
Remember that its crown will widely expand as it ages, so plant at least eight to ten feet away from your house and driveway. F. decipiens has no major pest or disease problems and doesn’t require pruning, although cutting away branches near the bottom may be a good idea once the tree is fully mature. The only major effort it will require from you is regular watering and cleaning away any leaves it might shed as it ages – this is a low-maintenance, symmetrical, aesthetically pleasing little tree.