African Fern Pine Plant Profile

A close-up of a fern pine's branches

Starr Environmental/Flickr/CC By 2.0

Originally assigned the botanical name Podocarpus gracilior, the fern pine has recently been reclassified as Afrocarpus gracilior by some botanists. Only a half dozen species have been described for the new genus, Afrocarpus. The fern pine is still generally sold under the name of Podocarpus gracilior, and most literature likewise refers to it by the well-known former scientific name.

The fern pine produces clusters of slender light green leaves that darken as they mature. The evergreen leaves are irregularly spaced and grow up to four inches in length at maturity. The flowers of this species are yellow and not conspicuous. Instead of producing a cone, small fleshy fruit is produced, containing a single seed. The berry-like fruits are green in color, turning to yellow as they ripen.

Botanical Name Podocarpus gracilior or Afrocarpus gracilior
Common Name African Fern Pine
Plant Type Tree
Mature Size 60 feet
Sun Exposure Direct sun to light shade
Soil Type Well-draining
Soil pH Acidic
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color Yellow
Hardiness Zones 9–11
Native Area East Africa

How to Grow African Fern Pines

Prized for low maintenance requirements, resistance to pests, and a wide tolerance of growing conditions, the fern pine (Podocarpus gracilior) is a versatile species that can be allowed to grow as a tree or trimmed to be a hedge, an espalier, or a shrub.

Although native to Africa (and sometimes referred to as the African fern pine), this species has become popular throughout the southern United States. It is frequently used as a barrier hedge or bush, accent tree, patio tree, shade tree, or as a windbreak. It tolerates urban conditions well, and the roots of this tree rarely lift or crack sidewalks. Smog is also tolerated, making it well-suited to areas that have less than ideal air quality.

Fern pines develop a single upright trunk with a dense canopy that, when properly trimmed, produces a rounded or oval shape. When allowed to grow in tree form it will eventually reach a height of up to 60 feet. Over time it will spread to a width of 25 to 35 feet, casting dense shade. The trunk will grow to a size of 2 feet or more in diameter. If kept as a shrub or hedge, the fern pine is usually clipped so it does not exceed a height of 20 feet. Young specimens have even been successfully trained as wall espaliers.  

Fern pines do not tolerate aerosol salt and should not be planted in locations that receive spray or mist from the ocean.

Light

Fern pines do well in direct sunlight to light shade, but they will grow in almost any light conditions, including full shade. The one type of exposure they will not thrive in is a bright western exposure.

Soil

African fern pines are not fussy when it comes to soil. They tolerate poor quality and compacted soil.

Water

During the first two years, give a fern pine 15 to 20 gallons of water per week. During the third year, give it 15 to 20 gallons of water every other week. After that, water based on the local environment. Fern pines will tolerate drought conditions, particularly when fully mature, but will do better when given water.

Temperature and Humidity

The fern pine originated in the mountains of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda, so it favors a warmer climate, doing best in USDA zones 9 through 11. Although it is cold-hardy to as low as 15ºF, it should be protected from freezing temperatures.

Fertilizer

Fertilize African fern pines in the springtime prior to new growth forming. Use an all-purpose fertilizer according to the instructions on the package.

Pruning

Young plants should be pruned to maintain a central leader and a healthy branch structure. Once established, pruning is not needed, except to achieve the desired size and shape. If espalier growth is desired, pruning to train it should begin when the tree is very young.

Common Pests/Diseases

Generally resistant to most pests and diseases, the fern pine can be susceptible to aphids, scale, and sooty mold.