Foxtail fern (Asparagus densiflorus) is a perennial evergreen herb that boasts luscious, fluffy stems of pine needle-like leaves, giving it a plush appearance. A member of the asparagus family, the foxtail fern is actually not a fern at all, as the plant uses seeds to reproduce, not spores. The feathery plant yields small white flowers that produce eye-catching red berries, a wonderful addition to both outside gardens and indoor houseplant collections. Foxtail fern is also used as greenery in flower arrangements, where it stays fresh for two to three weeks.
Do note that all parts of foxtail fern may be toxic to both humans and pets, including the flowers and the berries.
|Common Name||Foxtail fern, asparagus fern, plume asparagus, emerald feather, plumosa fern|
|Botanical Name||Asparagus densiflorus|
|Mature Size||2-3 ft. tall, 2-3 ft. wide|
|Soil pH||Acidic, neutral|
|Hardiness Zones||9a-11a (USDA)|
|Toxicity||Toxic to humans and pets|
Foxtail Fern Care
Though delicate-looking, foxtail fern is quite hardy. It's a laidback plant with easy care requirements. All this fern needs is bright, indirect light and well-draining soil. Pair this with a healthy amount of room to grow and the occasional trimming of spent stems, and you will have a beautifully bushy plant. The foxtail fern has tuberous roots, making it drought-tolerant. (It is quite forgiving if you forget to water it.) Because of its strong root system, however, it can choke out smaller, more fragile plants in your garden.
When kept in pots, foxtail fern makes a wonderful houseplant and can easily be brought indoors for the winter in colder climates.
Foxtail fern prefers soft light and likes to be planted in areas with filtered shade. A little morning sun is fine, just be sure your plant receives protection in the bright, hot afternoon. Indoors, place foxtail fern in bright, indirect light. Too much strong light will burn the leaves.
Foxtail fern can handle a variety of soil types, as long as it drains well to avoid root rot. It favors slightly acidic soil, but this is not a hard-and-fast requirement.
Foxtail fern has tuberous roots which store water, even when the soil is dry. For this reason, it is easy to overwater this plant. Stick to a schedule of once-a-week waterings giving your fern a good drink, but letting the top three inches of soil dry out completely in between. Should you experience a drought, you may need to water more frequently. Just test the soil with your finger before doing so.
Always allow for ample drainage when watering potted plants, and never let water sit in the tray.
Temperature and Humidity
Being native to South Africa, foxtail fern thrives in hot and humid weather. For indoor plants, provide a moisture source, such as a pebble tray with water, for ambient humidity. These plants also love a good misting.
Foxtail fern can be kept outdoors year-round in Zones 9a to 11b. In colder climates, however, potted ferns need to be taken in for the winter. This plant will not handle cold temperatures, so be sure to protect it from potential frosts.
Start feeding your foxtail in the spring, and then continue monthly throughout the growing season using a 10-10-10 plant food at half strength. Foxtail fern responds well to both slow-release fertilizers as well as liquid fertilizers. For outdoor garden ferns, you can also amend the soil annually in the fall with one inch of compost scattered around the plant topped with two inches of mulch.
As with any garden perennial, foxtail fern requires the removal of stems at the base. This will help your plant look robust, while encouraging new growth. Periodically, you can also pinch one inch off the stems to spur growth. Depending on the thickness of your foxtail's stem, this may require shears.
Propagating Foxtail Fern
The easiest way to propagate foxtail fern is through division, and the best time to do it is in the spring. When dividing ferns, always use a sharp knife or spade to cut through the center of the plant. Once dug, make sure each divided piece has healthy greenery and roots. When replanting, the initial watering should be generous.
Here's how to propagate through division:
- Gather a spade shovel, garden knife, or sharp garden shears, soil conditioner, compost, and mulch.
- Dig up your large fern (or, for potted plants, tip the pot upside down to remove the fern from the pot) to expose the root ball.
- With your garden knife or shears, divide the roots in half making sure to even out the greenery. Pull the two sides apart.
- Dig two holes that are wider than they are deep and sprinkle in the soil conditioner. Water the holes and allow the soil to drain.
- Place each root ball in the hole, taking care to fully bury the roots. Backfill with garden compost and soil. Water the ferns thoroughly.
- Wait a day or two, and then spread compost, soil conditioner, or garden mulch around the base of the plant.
How to Grow Fox Tail Fern From Seed
Foxtail fern can also be propagated by the seeds contained in the plant's little red berries. This method works just as well as dividing a mature fern, but the resulting plants will take two to three growing seasons to fully mature.
Here's how to grow foxtail fern from seed:
- Gather potting containers, a glass of water, plastic wrap, and potting soil with vermiculite.
- In the fall, harvest the red berries from existing ferns. Soak the berries in a glass of water for 24 hours. The next day, choose the seeds that have fallen to the bottom of the glass (these seeds have the best chance of germination).
- Fill each pot with potting soil and gently mist the top.
- Peel the fruit off of each seed and make two small holes in each pot. Plant two seeds per pot. Mist the soil again with water.
- Cover each pot with plastic wrap and locate them in a window that receives indirect sunlight. Mist them regularly for three to four weeks until they germinate.
- Once the plants are three to four inches tall, pull the leggier of the two seedlings and place the pot outside, when it's warm, in indirect sunlight. Bring it inside at night for a few days until you are ready to relocate it to your garden bed.
Potting and Repotting
The key to growing a healthy potted foxtail fern is sizing your pot, or container, just right. A fern grown in a pot that is too large may hold excess water, causing rot problems. You will know when it is time to repot your foxtail when the plant's roots become bound (roots will begin to peek up out of the soil). When this happens, simply move your fern to a pot that is two inches larger than the previous one, or gently divide the plant, as if propagating, and transplant half of the fern into another container. Foxtail fern does best in porous stone or clay pots that absorb excess moisture and mimic the plant's natural habitat.
Foxtail fern goes through a period of dormancy each winter when grown both in a garden or in pots. After the first hard frost, remove dead and damaged leaves from your foxtail, and then spread a layer of mulch around its base. Refrain from fertilizing this plant during its dormancy, but do provide a good watering once a month.
For a potted fern, relocate the pot to a sunny indoor window and cut back all dead leaves and fronds. Similar to an outdoor fern, refrain from fertilizing it, yet still water it once a week or when the soil feels dry. When kept indoors, expect some significant, messy leaf drop.
Common Pests & Plant Diseases
Foxtails are not highly susceptible to bugs and pests, however, the mealybug and other scale insects could move in on a plant that is unkempt. If this happens, you may see lumps on the plant's leaves or stems indicating a sapsucker infestation. Spray your plant with organic neem oil to ward off the offenders and prevent them from coming back.
Fungal disease, powdery mildew, and crown rot are known to affect foxtail ferns that receive too much water. Overwatering, and hot and humid weather, make the perfect conditions for fungus to proliferate.
Common Problems With Fox Tail Fern
One of the most common problems with foxtail fern is moisture stress. Overwatering will cause leaves and stems to yellow, and the plant will eventually die. Due to the fern's taproot system, frequent watering is unnecessary. Water quality is also of concern, as tap water containing too much chlorine can damage houseplants. Foxtail fern can also suffer from inadequate light. If your indoor fern begins to yellow, and the moisture content seems spot-on, relocate your potted plant to a sunny window to see if things improve.
How long does it take foxtail fern to mature?
Foxtail fern takes about three or more growing seasons to fully mature. A mature plant can grow to six to eight feet wide, but most will only stay about three or four feet wide for years.
How are foxtail ferns used in the garden?
Foxtail ferns are used in perennial gardens as borders alongside blooming flowers. You can also place them in outdoor containers along walkways or at home entrances.
What's the difference between foxtail fern and asparagus fern?
Many confuse true foxtail fern with asparagus fern (Asparagus aethiopicus). Though very similar, and both sometimes referred to by the same common name, there is a key difference. Asparagus fern droops downward, making a great addition to layered gardens or hanging baskets. Foxtail fern, on the other hand, stands straight. While not the same species, both ferns create white flowers and eye-catching red berries, hence the confusion.
Foxtail Fern. Louisiana State University
Asparagus Fern. ASCPA