How to Grow and Care for Lemon Button Ferns

A small lemon button fern (Nephrolepis cordifolia “Duffii”) in a wood and white pot on a white table.

Kristen Prahl / Getty Images

In This Article

If you’ve struggled to keep a fern alive indoors before (we’re looking at you maidenhair fern), then the lemon button fern (Nephrolepis cordifolia 'Duffii') may just be the plant for you. The lemon button fern is a dwarf variety of the common Boston fern and goes by many names including button sword fern, erect sword fern, little-leaved sword fern, and fishbone fern. This adorably compact fern is known for being resilient and less finicky than some of its relatives, and its small size makes it perfect for growing indoors. Plus the small leaves of the lemon button fern give off a faint lemony scent during the spring and summer months, making it a refreshing addition to any home.

 Botanical Name Nephrolepis cordifolia 'Duffii'
Common Name  Lemon button fern, button sword fern, erect sword fern, little-leaved sword fern, fishbone fern.
Family  Nephrolepidaceae
Plant Type  Rhizomes
Mature Size  12 in. tall, 12 in. wide
Sun Exposure  Partial, shade
Soil Type  Loamy, moist but well-draining
Soil pH  Acidic
Hardiness Zones  8a, 8b, 9a, 9b, 10a, 10b
Native Area  Asia
Overhead shot of a lemon button fern (Nephrolepis cordifolia “Duffii”).

Gegeonline / Getty Images

Lemon Button Fern Care

These ferns aren’t just cute as a button (pun intended), they are also relatively hardy and easy to grow. Compared to other varieties of fern, lemon button ferns can withstand a little bit of neglect which makes them ideal for the novice grower, or those who have a notoriously black thumb when it comes to ferns. All they need is a little bit of light and consistent watering and they will be happy.

Light

In their native environment, lemon button ferns grow as understory plants and are accustomed to indirect light conditions. When grown indoors, they grow best in medium, indirect light but can also tolerate low light or bright light conditions. However, never place your lemon button fern in direct sun as it will burn the delicate leaves.

Soil

Lemon button ferns thrive in acidic soil that is moist, loamy, and well-draining. That being said, these ferns are highly adaptable and can do well in a variety of soil conditions. For the most part, a standard houseplant soil is perfect for these little ferns.

Water

As with most ferns, the lemon button fern should never be allowed to fully dry out. Water your fern at least once a week to ensure that the soil stays consistently moist. While these ferns appreciate consistent moisture, never waterlog the soil as it can lead to root rot.

Temperature and Humidity

These ferns prefer warm, humid conditions. For the most part, typical household temperature and humidity levels should be fine for lemon button ferns, although if your house is particularly dry your fern will appreciate some added moisture. Try placing your lemon button fern near a small humidifier or in a high-humidity room like the bathroom or kitchen.

Fertilizer

Ferns are generally light feeders and the lemon button fern is no exception. Apply a balanced fertilizer diluted to half strength every few months during the growing season.

Pruning

Due to their compact size, lemon button ferns do not require any aggressive pruning to keep them happy and healthy. However, it is normal for some fronds to die off throughout the year—especially in the fall and winter months—and removing these dead fronds will help to keep the plant tidy and make space for new ones. Use a sharp pair of scissors or pruning shears to remove browning or dead fronds by making clean cuts near the base of each frond.

Propagating Lemon Button Ferns

Lemon button ferns grow from rhizomes, which means they propagate easily by division. Dividing a healthy lemon button fern is a great way to create new plants and manage the size of your existing fern. Propagating by division is a relatively simple process that can be completed in just a few steps:

  1. Remove the entire lemon button fern from its pot by gently wiggling the pot away from the root ball.
  2. Identify the section of fern that you want to divide off from the main clump.
  3. Using your hands, gently tease apart the roots of the new section of fern from the old plant, breaking as few roots as possible.
  4. Once you have divided the fern, pot the plants in separate containers using a well-draining soil mix and water them thoroughly.

Common Problems With Lemon Button Ferns

Brown Crispy Fronds

Fronds that turn brown and crispy are an indication that your lemon button fern is not receiving enough water and humidity. Ensure that you are watering your plant regularly, and try providing extra humidity using a pebble tray or humidifier.

Wilting Leaves

Wilting leaves can be an indication of two separate problems: too much sun, or overwatering. If the wilting leaves are accompanied by mushy stems, the culprit is likely overwatering, otherwise you may be looking at sun damage. 

Leaves Turning Yellow

Yellowing leaves can also be an indication of either too much sun or too much water. Ensure that your plant is not in a location that receives direct sun, and never saturate the soil during watering.

FAQ
  • Are Lemon Button Ferns Toxic to Cats and Dogs?

    Good news pet lovers: according to the ASPCA lemon button ferns are non-toxic to dogs and cats.

  • Should I Mist My Lemon Button Fern?

    Misting can temporarily increase the humidity around a plant, but is not a permanent solution to increasing moisture for your fern. Using a humidifier or placing a pebble tray beneath the fern are better long-term solutions for increasing humidity.

  • How Fast Do Lemon Button Ferns Grow?

    Lemon button ferns are notoriously slow-growing, and it may take a while before growth is noticeable. As long as you aren’t losing more fronds than you are gaining each year, your lemon button fern is likely happy and doing well.

Article Sources
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  1. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "Duffi Fern." Aspca.org. N.p., n.d. Web.