Pot Shots: Bird’s Nest Fern

A young bird’s nest fern, Asplenium nidus, in a vase by potter Denis Orton.


The bird’s nest fern takes its name from it rosette structure, with new fronds arising from its center.  In its native African or Asian jungle homes, these ferns most commonly grow high up in the canopy, anchored to trees or onto other large plants.  They enjoy high humidity and diffused, indirect light.  They catch rainwater in their central basin, or nest.

Most varieties will grow a bit larger with each passing year, with each frond of a mature plant unrolling to 2′ or more long.  Bird’s nest ferns may be grown in pots or may be mounted on a wooden base, with their roots wrapped in moist sphagnum moss, as you would mount a staghorn fern.



These ferns may fool you at first sight, and may not even be recognized as a fern.  Their fronds are usually undivided, wide and shiny, often with ripped edges.  Many beautiful varieties may be found where houseplants are sold.

Bird’s nest ferns thrive in the warm, low light conditions most homes offer.  They naturally grow in tropical jungles, and so require minimum temperatures over 50F.  They like humidity and evenly moist soil.  They can take occasionally dry soil, however, especially if the surrounding air is humid and if they get water accumulating in their center from time to time.


This bird’s nest fern is several years old and has been re-potted at least once.


Bird’s nest ferns  look like a living sculpture.  They  add a naturally beautiful touch to most any room that gets some natural light.  But they also help maintain cleaner, healthier indoor air for their gardener.  You won’t see it, but tiny holes in each leaf draw air in from their environment, purify it, and then exhale cleansed, oxygenated air.  Each frond can filter and trap many pollutants, making the air you breathe indoors much cleaner and fresher.  All houseplants serve this function, even as they release water vapor back into the air each day.

If you have a loved one in your life heading off to a dorm room or apartment this fall, a small potted bird’s nest fern makes a great housewarming gift.  Small potted ferns like this are also good office plants, making a work space healthier and more beautiful, while taking up little space.  You might give a tiny mister with the fern along with instructions to mist the fern a few times each day.

I honestly rarely pause long enough to mist a fern.  But I do check on them every day or so and offer small sips of water.


Water collects in the well at the center of a bird’s nest fern.  All new fronds arise from this central point.


A bird’s nest or staghorn fern will grow happily in a closed container, without drainage holes, so long as you keep the soil at a moist but not soggy ‘sweet spot.’  Growing in the jungle canopy, these ferns evolved to get sporadic watering in a very humid environment.  Their roots are fairly small relative to the size of their leaves, and in nature burrow into bark or organic matter caught in the branches of trees.

You can grow these ferns in a mix blended for orchids, or in a more traditional peat based potting mix with perlite mixed in to retain moister.  If you’re growing your fern in a closed container with no drainage hole, put an inch or so of perlite or aquarium gravel in the bottom of the container to serve as a water reservoir.  Excess water will drain down to the reservoir when you water.  Perlite will absorb and hold that water, slowly releasing it back into the soil as the soil begins to dry.


This fern has fronds similar to a bird’s nest fern, but each frond arises from a furry rhizome which creeps along the surface of the soil. These can be grown with roots wrapped in sphagnum moss, mounted with fishing twine to a board or a piece of driftwood.  I like them best in a hanging basket, where the rhizomes grow along the outside of the basket.


Perlite is a naturally occurring volcanic rock.  The perlite you buy at the hardware store or nursery has been superheated at over 1500F until it expands.  (Think about popcorn, and how it expands when heated.)  Once processed, it looks like little Styrofoam pellets, and can absorb a great deal of water.  Perlite is used in potting soil to improve drainage, to keep it from compacting and to absorb and release water as needed.

You may be able to find a good source for ferns in little 1″-2″ pots, where they are grown in nearly pure peat.  Simply take the root ball out of its nursery pot, and tuck it into a prepared container that is at least a little larger than the original pot.  Give a tiny drink of water to settle the plant and to hydrate the potting mix, and then mulch with fine gravel.

If you are potting up a little fern for a gift, you will probably find some fun but inexpensive containers at a thrift store.  Think about little Asian bowls or other little ceramic containers.  You can also pot into a plastic cup or bowl, and then tuck that into a pretty basket or other container made of wood.


Vase with prismatic  glaze by Denis Orton


I was inspired to use this pretty little vase, crafted by our potter friend Denis Orton.  Denis is a chemist who is always working to create beautiful new glazes.  His prismatic glazes on porcelain fascinate me, and I’m always keen to collect a new piece or two when he exhibits in our area.

You may need to pot up a fern like this to a larger pot every few years.  But since the fern’s roots remain small, any re-potting will probably be to keep the container in scale with the expanding leaves.

Fertilize the fern with half strength liquid fertilizer a few times between April and September.  This improves leaf color and keeps the plant growing steadily.  Too much fertilizer may cause brown spots on the fronds.  Direct sun may also cause browning of the fronds.  Keep a bird’s nest fern where it will get natural light, but not direct mid-day sunlight, through your window.  The more light it receives, the faster it will grow and the more water it will require.

Consider a little fern like this a ‘green pet.’  Give it a little daily attention, and it will grow happily in your home or office for many years.



Woodland Gnome 2018



About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

4 responses to “Pot Shots: Bird’s Nest Fern

  1. Seriously?! I did not know that they were epiphytic. I would have guessed that they were terrestrial. I grew mine in pots. I did not like how the collected debris, and kept it cleaned out regularly. I no longer grow ferns in pots because they are so many growing wild (although exotic) in the landscape. I have not added bird’s nest fern just because they are so sculptural that I would want to keep the debris cleaned out of them. My two old bird’s nest ferns are now in a garden in Los Angeles.

  2. I once had a bird’s nest fern that grew so large, I had to give it away!

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