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, this species has become popular throughout the southern United States. It is frequently used as a barrier hedge or bush, an accent tree, patio tree, shade tree, as a windbreak, to adorn parking lots, for highway medians and along boulevards. It tolerates urban conditions well, and the roots of this tree rarely lift or crack sidewalks.
Originally assigned the botanical name of 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.
Clusters of long slender leaves resembling those of a fern adorn this species, giving it the popular common name of fern pine. However, it is not a true pine tree as those species are in the Pinus genus.
It is also referred to as the African fern pine because it originated in African mountains of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda. Other names that are used to refer to this attractive tree are fern tree and weeping podocarpus.
Preferred USDA Hardiness Zones
The fern pine originated in Africa and favors a warmer climate, doing best in USDA zones 9 through 11. Although it is cold-hardy to as low as 15 F, it should be protected from freezing temperatures. It tolerates poor soil conditions and has a high drought tolerance. Smog is tolerated, making it well suited to urban areas that have less than ideal air quality.
Size and Shape
Fern pines develop a single upright trunk with a dense canopy that when properly trimmed, produces a rounded to an oval shape. It is also possible to trim it to grow into a formal hedge form, or into a large shrub.
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 a dense shade. The trunk will grow to a size of two feet or more in diameter.
When 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 Pine will do well in direct sunlight to light shade. Although tolerant of cool temperatures, it is wise to plant in locations that protect it from frost. Fern pines will tolerate smog conditions, but do not tolerate aerosol salt, and should not be planted in locations that receive spray or mist from the ocean.
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 small berry-like fruits are green in color, turning to yellow as they ripen.
Design and Growing Tips for the Fern Pine
Fern pines can be used in a wide variety of settings but combine particularly well with low growing yellow ground covers, such as yellow lantana. It is quite common to train this species as a wall espalier. When using fern pines along sidewalks, in boulevards or parking lots, the lower branches should be removed.
During the first two years, give 15 to 20 gallons of water per week. During the third year, give 15 to 20 gallons of water every other week. After that, water based on local environment. Fern pines will tolerate drought conditions, particularly when fully mature, but will do better when given water.
Young plants should be pruned to maintain a central leader and 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 into the desired shape should begin when the tree is very young.
Pests & Diseases
Generally resistant to most pests and diseases, the fern pine can be susceptible to aphids, scale, and sooty mold.