How to Grow African Fern Pine

A close-up of a fern pine's branches

Starr Environmental/Flickr/CC By 2.0

In This Article

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 for 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 refers 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.

Botanical Name Afrocarpus gracilior or Podocarpus gracilior
Common Name African fern pine
Plant Type Coniferous tree
Mature Size 40–60 feet, 20–35 feet wide
Sun Exposure Full sun (tolerates part shade)
Soil Type Well-draining
Soil pH 6.0 to 7.0 (slightly acidic to neutral)
Bloom Time Spring (flowers are insignificant)
Flower Color Yellow
Hardiness Zones 9–11 (USDA)
Native Area East Africa
Toxicity Possibly toxic

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.

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 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. Although it is cold-hardy to as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit, 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.

Is African Fern Pine Toxic?

Afrocarpus gracilior does not make any official lists of toxic plants, however, there are some online sources that insist it mildly poisonous. This possibility should be considered, as another closely related tree, Podocarpus macrophyllus (yew pine), is found on some lists as a plant that is mildly toxic for humans and somewhat more toxic for pets.

Plants in the Podocarpus genus (to which the Afrocarpus species once belonged) can cause diarrhea, enlarged pupil, seizures, tremors, and vomiting if any plant parts are ingested in quantity by pets and humans. (Ingestion is rare in humans, as the plant is not pleasant to the taste). Yew pines and other Podocarpus species can cause fairly severe allergic reactions in some people; it is possible the same reaction will be experienced by contact with fern pines.

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.