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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A Living Centerpiece

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Early December is often spent sprucing up our inside spaces for the holidays.  Not only do we spend more time indoors, but many of us will have family, friends, and house guests visiting this month and next.  We clean up, freshen up, and bring out our Christmas decorations in anticipation.

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All of the components for this arrangement

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I love to have a beautiful holiday centerpiece on the dining room table, because that is where we gather with friends with our cups of tea or coffee.   A beautiful centerpiece brings a smile and lightens the spirit even when it is just us enjoying it.

This year I found a beautiful bowl I wanted to use as the base for a living floral design.   Living, so there are no dropping needles or berries  from cut greens to clean up late in the month.  I hope this looks even better in February and March than it does today.  Eventually I’ll move these ferns out to other pots and reclaim the bowl for the kitchen.

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Frosty Moss Fern, Selaginella kraussiana

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The frosty moss fern, found at Trader Joe’s, is a tough little houseplant.  I bought my first ones  this time last year, and they lived in the window sill all winter.  Moved into a larger pot in the spring and grown out on the deck; they tripled in size, growing happily in the shade.  These cascade as they grow and send out aerial roots.  They like humidity and constant moisture.

The bird’s nest fern, found at Lowe’s, is another excellent house plant which enjoys the same growing conditions.  I moved the little Rex Begonia and fern planted a few months ago into the edges of this arrangement.  Their bowl was too little for them to grow long term.  I hope the Begonia will bounce back to fill in the edges of this arrangement.  I know the fern will grow well here.  Finally, I added one more tiny Rex found at Lowe’s in a 1″ pot to the edge of this design for some immediate color and contrast.  The ivy is a rooted cutting from ivy growing outside.

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When planting in a pot with no drainage, it’s important to add a few inches of coarse material to serve as a reservoir for water.  This helps prevent the soil from getting waterlogged if you over water.  I used a few inches of sea shells and gravel, and then added good potting soil with food mixed in.  Next came the plants, more soil to fill in the spaces around them, and finally a layer of gravel to dress the soil on top.  Always break up the root balls slightly and splay the bottom few inches of root to encourage their growth out into the surrounding soil.

Finally, I gave the entire arrangement a light spray at the kitchen sink to settle the soil and to rinse off the gravel.  These ferns appreciate the moisture on their foliage and will enjoy getting sprayed with cool water from time to time.   All of these plants enjoy high humidity and will dry out quickly.  It is important to check them every few days by touching the soil.  The top dressing helps conserve moisture.  Observing the color and texture of the foliage is another clue to the health and happiness of the plants.

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When choosing plants to enjoy indoors during the winter, make sure to choose plants which can thrive in low to medium light.  If they begin to stretch out for light, move them to an area closer to your windows during the daytime and  when you aren’t at home, then move them back to the dining table in the evening or when you’re entertaining.

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Another small fern, and a Rex Begonia are planted on the back side, where they should begin to fill in within a few weeks.

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Other excellent choices to work in a similiar container would be poinsettias, orchids, cyclamen, and ivy.  All of these tough and beautiful houseplants offer color and beautiful form, bloom during the winter, and are widely available in December.  Christmas cactus doesn’t make my list because it demands brighter light, and the flowers are messy when they drop.  I grow them, but keep them closer to the windows and grouped with other plants.

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So go ahead and construct a living holiday centerpiece now with an expectation to enjoy it for at least the next six to eight weeks.  Let its beauty and color add to your enjoyment of the holiday season.  It is not huge investment at all, especially if you use a container you already own.  This arrangement, including the $10.00 bowl, came in at about $22.00.  Every piece of it will be used again in another way after the holidays.

What a beautiful gift for your own family, or for a loved one.

All Photos by Woodland Gnome.

“If you really know how to live, what better way to start the day than with a smile?…Smiling helps you approach the day with gentleness and understanding…Smile with your whole being. ”

Thich Nhat Hanh

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