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 (Afrocarpus gracilior) is a conifer with long, narrow leaves, native to eastern Africa. 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 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. Its height will depend on whether it grows as a tree or a hedge. 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. However, if kept as a shrub or hedge, the fern pine is usually clipped so it does not exceed a height of 20 feet.

Plant the tree in early spring or fall. African fern pine has a moderate growth rate that will add 12 to 36 inches a year and 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 Tree
Mature Size 40–60 ft. tall, 20–35 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full, partial
Soil Type Well-drained
Soil pH Acidic, Neutral
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color Yellow
Hardiness Zones 9–11 (USDA)
Native Area Africa

African Fern Pine Care

Prized for low maintenance requirements, resistance to pests, and wide tolerance to growing conditions, the fern pine is a versatile species that is popular throughout the southern United States. It can be allowed to grow as a shade tree or trimmed to be a barrier bush or hedge, accent tree, patio tree, or as a windbreak. Young specimens have even been successfully trained as wall espaliers. It tolerates urban and street conditions, as well, and the roots of this tree will rarely lift or crack sidewalks which means it can live well next to structures or hardscapes. Smog is also tolerated, making it well-suited to areas that have less-than-ideal air quality.

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.

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. The fern pine's leaves may turn brown if it is shocked by cold temperatures.

Fertilizer

Fertilize African fern pines in the springtime before new growth forms. 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. 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. Seeds are typically eaten by birds and wildlife making it difficult to propagate by seeding. Cuttings will take a bit of time and patience as it can take around a year for them 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. Remove any needles from the bottom 1/3 of the cutting.
  3. Dip the cut end into a rooting hormone.
  4. Place cutting into a pot filled with equal portions of peat moss or a 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.

Potting and Repotting the African Fern Pine

The African fern pine is often used potted inside tall atriums in commercial buildings. Though too large to grow indoors in residential settings, it makes an excellent potted plant outdoors. These pines can be planted in a large pot, making them nice accents by the front entry or as tall screening hedges set into large containers varying from 5 gallons up to 25 gallons. You can even trim this fern pine into a contained topiary if desired for a unique ornamental piece. Pots in any material must have drainage holes and should be filled with well-draining soil for an African fern pine to feel comfortable. African fern pines do not like to feel restricted in pots so opt for larger containers as the tree grows.

Common Pests & Plant Diseases

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.

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 2 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.

  • Are fern pine trees messy?

    Male fern pine trees are considered to be "clean" trees with little litter to worry about. Female fern pines tend to drop messy fruits.

  • How big does a fern pine grow?

    A fern pine is very versatile, though it can become quite tall. It can grow between 40 to 60 feet tall, depending on how it's pruned, trained, or if it's grown in the ground or a container.

  • What's the difference between fern pine and 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.")

Article Sources
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  1. Fern Pine. University of Redlands.