Pot Shots: Bird’s Nest Fern

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Vase with prismatic  glaze by Denis Orton

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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.

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Woodland Gnome 2018


 

 

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Houseplant Hacks: Schlumbergera Propagation

Shlumbergera blooming  in our living room in February 2015.

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Christmas or Thanksgiving cactus plants may become another family heirloom.  Long lived and easy to care for, this is a quintessential ‘pass along plant’  you may be gifted with during the holidays.

Whether someone gives you one in full bloom in a little foil wrapped pot, or a well-meaning aunt insists on sending a cutting home with you, this is the season when many families enjoy a blooming cactus as a part of their holiday.

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A neighbor gave us this beautiful Christmas cactus covered in buds, last week.

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I can’t remember a time when my own mother didn’t have a Christmas cactus.  Her first one began as a gifted cutting from someone in the extended family.  At one time it had grown to a monstrous size, maybe 20″ or more around in a  large clay pot.  I never gave this ugly duckling house plant much consideration in those years, probably because hers didn’t often bloom.

Once you’ve enjoyed the vivid, decidedly odd blooms of a Schlumbergera on a wintery day, you may develop an appetite for these unusual plants just as I have.  Their extravagant flowers are meant to attract hummingbirds to pollinate them.  I love to have one in full bloom indoors when its snowing outside.

The ‘off’ bloom schedule of these beautiful tropical cacti may have something to do with their country and hemisphere of origin.  They were originally collected from the mountainous coastal forests of southeastern Brazil, where they grow in bright, humid shade.  They may be found growing high up in trees on moss covered branches, or in small pockets of soil in rocky areas at high altitudes.

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They were in cultivation in Europe by the early 19th Century, where breeders developed new cultivars for the market.  They were enjoyed both in homes and in fashionable heated greenhouses.

Although a cactus, these plants have no spines to stick you.   A succulent, they don’t require a great deal of care.  They offer a bulky green presence year round, bursting into abundant vivid bloom  between late October and late February each year.

Schlumbergera commonly turn up in grocery stores and garden centers blooming in shades of red, pink and purple.  Sometimes you may find one with white blooms touched with vivid rose.  More rarely, they can be found blooming  in shades of salmon, yellow or orange.

This is one reason it pays to know how to root a Christmas cactus.  Once you find one of the rarer colors, you might want to produce more to share, or for your own collection.

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Light pink Christmas cactus with a tiny white poinsettia on offer at a local garden center.

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Another reason is that the stems, which look like flat leaves, can sometimes be a bit fragile.  A section may break off while you are moving the plant or while you are moving around the plant.  When this happens, it feels nicer to root the broken piece than to discard it.

I’ve tried many different ways to root these odd green stems over the years.  The stems don’t really like to sit in water, though I’ve seen my mother root them this way.  They also don’t root reliably when simply stuck into some potting soil, though this sometimes works OK.  If the stars don’t align, or the temperature and humidity aren’t just right, then your efforts may be rewarded with a shriveled or mushy bit of stem with no roots to sustain it.

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I experimented with a new technique for rooting a Christmas cactus stem in extremely shallow water, on moist rocks.

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I was understandably excited when I saw a pin on Pinterest a few months ago, offering a novel way to root Schlumbergera.  The key to the wet rock method is to understand that Schlumbergera  naturally grow in a humid, coastal forest, high up in the mountains.  High humidity is the key, along with keeping the stem mostly dry, with only the growing tip in water.

Begin with a glass or small jar, and add a few inches of clean, attractive rocks.  Fill your glass with just enough fresh, cool water, to barely cover most of the rocks.  Then add your cuttings so that they rest on the rocks in very shallow water.  It works best to ‘twist’ the cutting from the parent plant rather than using scissors to remove it.

You will need at least 1 full stem section, though you may take a cutting a few inches long, like this one.  If the cutting already has flower buds, they will continue to grow as your cutting roots.

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Place your container and cuttings into a bright, cool window sill, where the cuttings will get bright light, but minimal direct sunlight.  Keep the water replenished every few days, and watch for those roots to grow.

Once the roots are at least 1/4″ long, you can pot up your rooted cutting in a peat based soil mix with a little grit.  The soil needs to drain easily.  Keep the soil just moist, but never really wet and never bone dry.

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This cutting is ready to pot up in good quality peat based potting mix.  Add a little fine grit to improve drainage.  If you plant into a container without drainage holes, be sure to begin with a few inches of gravel in the bottom of the container for drainage.

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I  feed my Christmas cactus monthly, during their season of bloom, with diluted orchid fertilizer; which keeps the buds coming.  Mine live near a large window where they get bright light during the daytime, but they also get natural darkness in late afternoon.  They like long nights and shorter days during their season of bloom.  The long nights help trigger bud formation. Shlumbergera also use more water when they are blooming, and of course thrive in a humid environment.

If your home has very dry air in winter, then try grouping them together, and consider setting the pots on trays of pebbles with a bit of standing water in the tray.

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This cutting rooted in the glass on moist rocks. After a few weeks, I planted it in its own little container to grow on until spring.

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In our climate, Christmas cactus thrive in bright shade on the deck all summer long.  I move them out in late April, once danger of frost has passed.  They love our humidity and grow lush with very little attention until time to bring them in ahead of the first fall frosts in late October.  By then, they have covered themselves in flower buds.

Keep your plants large and lush by adding rooted cuttings to your established pots of Christmas cactus.  They like a tight fit for their roots in the pot, but do pot them up every few years and give them some fresh, fertile soil.

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If your space allows, plant Christmas cactus in hanging planters, or set the pots up on plant stands where their drooping branches and long, pendulous flowers may be admired.   I’ve even seen a grouping of Christmas cactus pots arranged on a plant stand with layers of shelves, to give the illusion of a blooming Christmas tree.

These odd houseplants are extremely easy and rewarding to grow, once you know a few hacks to make your efforts more successful.

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Woodland Gnome 2017
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