How to Grow and Care for the African Fern Pine

African fern tree with sprawling bright green branches against blue sky

The Spruce / Heidi Kolsky

African fern pine is a conifer with long, narrow leaves, native to eastern Africa. In appropriate North American climates, it can be used as a moderately tall landscape tree, but it also accepts hard pruning and is sometimes used as a hedge plant.

Originally assigned the botanical name Podocarpus gracilior, the fern pine has been reclassified as Afrocarpus gracilior by some botanists. The fern pine is still generally sold under the name of Podocarpus gracilior, and literature may still refer to it by the 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 4 inches in length at maturity. It is the airy, fern-like appearance of the foliage that makes this a desirable tree or hedge shrub. The flowers of this species are yellow and not conspicuous. Instead of a traditional cone, the tree produces a small fleshy fruit containing a single seed. The berry-like fruits are green in color, turning to yellow as they ripen.

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.

African fern pine has a moderate growth rate that will add 12 to 36 inches a year, and it can be quite long-lived, surviving up to 150 years.

Common Name African fern pine
Botanical Name Afrocarpus gracilior or Podocarpus gracilior
Family Podocarpaceae
Plant Type Coniferous tree
Mature Size 40–60 ft. tall, 20–35 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full sun (tolerates part shade)
Soil Type Well-drained
Soil pH Acidic, Neutral
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color Yellow (flowers are insignificant)
Hardiness Zones 9–11 (USDA)
Native Area East Africa

African Fern Pine Care

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

Although native to Africa, 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.

Generally resistant to most pests and diseases, the fern pine can be susceptible to aphids, scale, and sooty mold, but the damage is rarely severe.

African fern pine tree branch with fern-like leaves closeup

The Spruce / Heidi Kolsky

African fern pine tree with tall trunks and sprawling fern-like branches against blue sky

The Spruce / Heidi Kolsky

Light

Fern pines do best in direct morning sunlight but they tolerate shady conditions. In hot climates, some shade is preferable. They can be somewhat sensitive to direct southern or western exposure in the late day hours.

Soil

African fern pines are not fussy when it comes to soil. They tolerate poor quality and compacted soil. The preference is for slightly acidic soil, but these trees will also grow quite well in neutral or even slightly alkaline soil. Fern pines do not tolerate aerosol salt and should not be planted in locations that receive spray or mist from the ocean.

Water

During the first two years, give a fern pine a heavy watering each week. During the third year, reduce this to every other week. After that, water is based on the local environment. Fern pines will tolerate drought conditions, particularly when fully mature, but will do better when given regular 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. It's similar to the coffee plant. Although it is cold-hardy to as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit, the fern pine 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.

Fern Pine vs. Yew Pine

Afrocarpus gracilior has no named cultivars, but it is quite similar to the yew pine (Podocarpus macrophyllus), a tree that has much the same use in the landscape. Yew pine, however, has somewhat better cold hardiness (zones 7 to 9), and it is a smaller plant, rarely exceeding 40 feet. It also has a somewhat coarser leaf structure than fern pine. (Fern pine's gracilior species name translates as "more graceful.")

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. If grown as a hedge, keep the plants uniformly sheared to the desired height and width. It is best to prune these plants in late winter or early spring before new growth has started.

Propagating the African Fern Pine

Like other conifers, the African Fern Pine can be propagated from cuttings. This will take a bit of time and patience as it can take around a year for cuttings to root. Here's how:

  1. Cut about 4 to 6 inches of a branch's new growth, making sure that it is healthy before cutting.
  2. From the bottom 1/3 of the cutting, remove any needles.
  3. Then dip the cut end into a rooting hormone.
  4. Place cutting into a pot filled with equal portions of peat moss or similar type of soil, and coarse sand. No needles portion of the cutting should touch the soil.
  5. Water as needed, and cover the pot and the cutting with plastic to create a small greenhouse.
  6. Remove plastic to water, and poke holes in plastic if you see a lot of moisture inside. When new growth appears, remove the plastic for good.
  7. The baby pine trees should be allowed to grow a bit in the pot and mature before transplanting.
FAQ
  • How far apart should you plant African Fern Pines for a privacy hedge?

    When planting these pines to use as a hedge, plant them approximately two feet apart.

  • How do you know if you have a male or female African Fern Pine?

    African fern pines are either male or female. The male will produce only the small yellow flowers, while the female plant produces the berries and the flowers.

  • Can you grow African Fern Pines in a container?

    These pines can be planted in a large pot, making it a nice accent for by the front entry. You can trim it into a topiary if desired for a unique ornamental piece.

Article Sources
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  1. Fern Pine. University of Redlands.