Caring for Boston Ferns

Nephrolepis exaltata cv. 'Bostoniensis'

How Boston ferns came to exist and why there are so many different types. Care of Nephrolepis exaltata 'Bostoniensis' houseplants. How to use them in the landscape. Boston fern photos.

Picture of a Boston fern in a hanging basket.

How the Boston Fern was Discovered

The first plant in this popular genus was discovered in a shipment of 200 Sword ferns that arrived in Boston, MA from Philadelphia, PA in 1894.

Sword ferns have erect fronds.

This naturally-occurring mutant had gracefully arching fronds that were noticeably wider than those of the sword fern. That first plant gave rise to the cultivar 'Bostoniensis', a whole family of pretty freaks.

The original 'Bostoniensis' was propagated and marketed. It quickly overtook the sword fern in popularity which brought it into mass production.

It didn't take growers long to discover that Boston fern runners frequently mutate into new and exciting leaf forms. Commercial greenhouse owners began to watch their crops carefully for attractive aberrations.

Plants with different but desirable growth habits or leaf styles were separated out, named, propagated and introduced to the insatiable gardening public.

By 1920 75 types of Boston ferns had become available. Today the furor has died down some. Fewer than 20 varieties are still in commerce.

Picture of Boston ferns in pots staged in front of potted palms at Longwood Gardens.

This photo demonstrates how effectively the spreading foliage of Boston ferns can be used to hide whatever is placed behind it.

The arching green fronds of the Boston fern can grow to a length of 2 feet. The fronds grow quickly and arise directly from the soil. Each one has a midrib with small leaflets growing on either side of it.

The various cuts of these leaflets is what creates the different named varieties.

These Boston ferns are being used to good effect on a rock wall at a resort in Maui, Hawaii.

Their slightly weeping growth habit encourages gardeners to plant them in hanging baskets.

They can also be attractively staged on Victorian plant stands and look good displayed singly or massed.

Image of boston ferns on a rock wall at a hotel in Maui, Hawaii.
Image of Boston ferns growing in the shade garden of an artist in St. Augustine, Fl.

The artist who uses this shade garden to display her work has taken full advantage of the wild ferns that grow here in St. Augustine, Florida.

These ferns are most often grown as houseplants, but they are perennial in zones 9-11.

In very cold winters they may appear to die, but will come back, good as new, in the spring.

Outdoor Boston Fern Care

Growing ferns beneath palm trees is a good idea.

The ferns grow thickly enough to suppress weeds and will protect the sensitive palm tree trunks from lawn care equipment.

When grown outdoors, Nephrolepis exaltata will tolerate poor soil and exhibit extreme drought tolerance.

They prefer to grow in the shade but will thrive in sunny locations too if supplemental water is provided.

If you decide to grow them in the landscape, they make a nice edging but do require regular maintenance to keep them in bounds.

The excess plants that will inevitably pop up are easy to pull out. Planting them at the edge of a lawn may make this chore easier as the lawn mower will keep them in check.

Photo of landscaping with Boston ferns.

In this image, a compact-growing cultivar has been planted in a mulched garden bed. The runners will have to be plucked out or cut down regularly to keep the clumps tidy.

Boston Fern Houseplant Care

Give them rich, constantly moist soil and bright light. The air in the room in which the ferns are kept needs to be humid in order for them to thrive. Provide good air circulation or they will develop an insect problem.

If your fern does become the victim of a mealy bug assault, you can try taking it outside and hosing it off with a strong spray of water.

Of course, you can only do this during warm weather.

This will only work if the infestation is slight and on the condition that you change whatever is wrong in the plant's growing conditions. Try giving it more light and leaving a fan turned on low for a few hours per day to provide better air flow.

If the infestation is severe, all may not be lost. Sometimes removing all the foliage and drenching the soil with a solution of soapy water (a few drops of dish liquid in a quart of water) then flushing it with clear water an hour later will rid you of these pests. The foliage will grow back in a couple of months.

I make these suggestions because ferns do not react well to chemical insecticides.


Eventually, a potted fern will become root bound. Remove it from the pot and loosen up the root ball a bit before placing it into fresh soil. You can either use a larger pot than the one it was previously in or you can divide the plant.

Use a sharp knife to cut through the mass of roots. Cut the fern in half or, if it is very large, into quarters. A 10-15 inch container will make a good home for each division.

The root damage this operation does will most likely cause some fronds to die. Just clip them off and keep the plant in filtered light until it recovers.


It is only necessary to trim damaged fronds from a healthy plant.

Hard pruning is only needed in the case of insect infestation. Cutting the foliage back to the soil level is an easy way to rejuvenate the plant.

When grown indoors, these ferns like cool temps (around 60 degrees F.) so keep them away from radiators in the winter.

A good way to water Boston ferns is to set their pots into a sink of water, allowing their roots to "drink".

Feed monthly during the growing season with any balanced liquid fertilizer.

Silk Boston Fern Plants

Boston Fern Silk Plant with Wood Wicker Basket

Boston Fern Silk Plant with Wood Wicker Basket

This realistic artificial fern is the perfect "houseplant" for rooms that cry out for a touch of greenery but do not have bright enough light to sustain a live plant.p> The beautiful basket is included (they often are not with silk plants) and is versatile enough to enhance many different styles of home decor.

Boston Fern

Hanging Bostoniensis

Don't be fooled by the picture. At 28 inches wide and 14 inches high, this is a large, lush silk plant.

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