The Pteris genus includes a huge variety of species, mostly ranging from the tropics and subtropics, although there are a few temperate species. Collectively known as brake ferns, many have flat, pinnate fronds that hardly resemble the traditional idea of a fern.
The most popular ones for indoor cultivation tend to be relatively tough plants, often with beautiful variegation that makes them look harder to grow than they actually are. In fact, and especially for ferns, these tend to be fairly tough plants that require only adequate moisture and protection from very dry air (both in summer and winter) to do well. The smaller species make excellent tabletop plants.
Overall, these probably deserve a wider distribution in the plant trade than they typically get, so if you see one, make sure to grab it and add it to your collection.
- Light: They prefer bright, filtered light throughout the summer months when they are actively growing. During the winter months, try to provide as much light as possible, short of direct mid-day sunlight. Although there are some deciduous varieties, the most commonly grown are evergreen and should not drop leaves during the winter.
- Water: Pteris ferns are not overly demanding when it comes to water, although like most ferns they do require ample humidity. For best results, mist your winter plants daily.
- Soil: Any good, fast-draining potting soil will likely do.
- Fertilizer: Feed with a weak liquid fertilizer throughout the growing season.
Pteris can be propagated by spores, but it's much easier to divide the rhizome or root ball during repotting. It's best to take divisions in the spring, making sure to get a bit of rhizome and some fronds or healthy leaf buds when dividing.
These are relatively fast growing ferns and should be repotted every spring. For best results, divide the plant during repotting, shake the old dirt from the roots, and carefully repot into fresh soil. After repotting make sure to provide plenty of warmth and moisture until the new growth starts.
There are nearly 300 species of Pteris distributed around the world. The most common one in cultivation is the P. cretica, or Cretan brake. This plant remains about 18 inches in height and grows with unusual oval or lanceolate divided leaves that are a light green with a striking variegation in white down the middle. Breeders have done extensive work with this species over the years and introduced a number of named varietals. Other varieties are occasionally available.
The key to growing good Pteris is to provide enough humidity and bright, filtered light to keep the plant thriving. They like a steady supply of water and average temperatures, but will quickly show signs of stress in very dry environments.
These signs include brown leaf margins and dropping leaves, although some leaf drop is typical. They also don't like being waterlogged and plants that are allowed to sit in saturated or soggy soil will quickly succumb to root rot. The leaves of this fern can be somewhat brittle, so avoid placing them in areas where people or animals are likely to brush up against them.
They do, however, work particularly well for tabletops or desks, where it will be easier to appreciate their delicate and colorful foliage. Finally, don't let them get too warm at night. The popular P. cretica thrives in conditions with cooler, humid nights.