How to Grow a Fern Tree

Japanese tree fern potted in corner of house next to window and other houseplants

The Spruce / Anastasiia Tretiak

In This Article

The fern tree is a pleasant and graceful specimen whose small size makes it ideal for a suburban 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 fern-like manner, which gives the tree its common name. The name "fern" tree is a misnomer; it is not a fern.

Still, the tree's fern-like leaves are packed together tightly, giving the tree a dense and beautiful crown that provides good shade. As the tree ages, it steadily expands outward to achieve a wonderful bulbous shape, eventually blooming with small, inconspicuous white flowers.

The fern tree is best planted in early fall and is a fairly slow grower (adding about 12 inches a year) that doesn’t require trimming or much effort on your end. Once planted in the right area, it 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.

Botanical Name Filicium decipiens
Common Name Fern tree
Plant Type Evergreen tree
Mature Size 15–35 ft. tall, 15–25 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full sun, partial shade
Soil Type Moist but well-drained
Soil pH Neutral to acidic
Bloom Time Winter
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones 10–12 (USDA)
Native Area  Africa, Asia

Fern Tree Care

Fern trees require a bit of planning and care, but once established they're very easy going. Though native to the East, the tree grows very well in tropical conditions because of its high need for direct sunlight and warmth. In fact, it’s particularly popular in South Florida and will flourish in an area that approximates a tropical climate.

Due to its pleasing shape and easy growth habit, the fern tree has lots of possible uses in your landscape as a shade tree, a backdrop for flowers, or lining a pathway or driveway. Remember that its crown will widely expand as it ages, so plant each tree at least eight to 10 feet away from your house or other structure (as well as each other).

Additionally, fern trees have no major pest or disease problems and don’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.

Japanese fern tree with fern-like leaves on top closeup

The Spruce / Anastasiia Tretiak

Japanese fern tree with fern-like leaves from above closeup

The Spruce / Anastasiia Tretiak

Light

The fern tree prefers lots of direct sunlight and you should aim to plant it in a place that will get at least eight hours of sun a day (or more). If you live in an especially hot or dry climate, the plant can withstand partially shaded spots, especially during the hotter afternoon hours.

Soil

In order for your fern tree to thrive, plant it in well-draining soil. A general potting mixture can usually suffice, but you should make sure your chosen mixture is strongly alkaline. You should do your best to avoid planting the tree in a spot that has arid or especially wet soil.

Water

For best results, water your fern tree 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 and Humidity

The fern tree prefers warm, tropical temperatures and is not frost tolerant. In order for it to thrive, ensure it isn't exposed to temperatures below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. It also loves humidity, so your tree will absolutely benefit from a climate that already boasts above-average humidity levels.

Fertilizer

Fern trees should be fertilized in the fall, spring, and summer with a granular fertilizer. Feeding during the winter isn’t necessary, as the tree goes semi-dormant during that time. When feeding your tree, make sure to opt for a high-quality fertilizer blend you trust—the heavy salts found in some cheaper blends can damage the tree's delicate roots.

Propagating Fern Tree

The fern tree propagates by seed, and natural germination should work just fine. To do so, sow the seeds in the fall and give them time to get settled—they should begin to germinate by the early spring. Make sure not to sow the seeds too deep, or else they won't sprout properly. Additionally, 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 the 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.

Common Pests & Diseases

While not prone to any major debilitating pests or disease, the fern tree can contend with some common issues such as root rot or leaf yellowing. If you notice the leaves on your tree changing hue, it's likely due to an iron deficiency or too cold temperatures, so consider amending the soil if that could potentially be an issue. Additionally, problems can arise with root rot if the tree is planted in poorly draining soil, which is why it's especially important to consider where—and in what—you plant your fern tree.