Birds Nest Ferns will add the sense of a tropical rainforest to your living spaces

Image by hartonosubagio from PixabayImage by hartonosubagio from PixabayDespite their exotic appearance birds nest ferns are surprisingly easy to care for. And if you understand their needs, even beginner gardeners can grow them. Read more below about what it needs to thrive and grow, including light, soil, water, temperature, humidity, fertilising, mounting, propagation, repotting, and other interesting facts.

Description, history and interesting facts about birds nest ferns:

Asplenium nidus is native to east tropical Africa, in Tanzania and including the Zanzibar Archipelago; and to temperate and tropical Asia, in Indonesia, East Timor, the island of Kyushu, and the Ryukyu Islands of Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand. It is also found in northern Australia and the Pacific Islands.

It belongs to the Spleenwort family of ferns, and as the name implies, historically it was believed that these plants had medicinal value for the spleen. Its common name arises from the way the fronds roll back and turn brown as they die causing a 'birds nest' to develop in the crown of the plant. 

In their natural habitat in tropical rainforests birds nest ferns grow underneath the forest canopy where they are protected from the harsh sun. They are able to attach themselves onto the branches or trunks of trees, fallen trunks, and other mossy surfaces via their shallow rhizomes. A rhizome is a modified subterranean plant stem that sends out roots and shoots from its nodes. Rhizomes are also called “creeping rootstalks” or just “rootstalks”.

These types of plants are called “epiphytes” and they co-exist with their hosts in the most harmonious, harmless way, deriving their nutrients from the air, water, dust, and debris around them. Many, like the birds nest fern can also survive as a terrestrial plant growing on the rich organic matter of the forest floor.

Unlike many other ferns which grow feathery leaflets, bird's nest ferns have smooth, bright green lance-shaped fronds that grow from a central rosette, and sometimes develop gentle ripples when grown with sufficient light. Birds nest ferns have a slow growth rate, and they typically grow more slowly and remain smaller when kept indoors versus outdoors. In the tropics the fronds can grow anything from 50 to 150 centimetres long and 10 to 20 centimetres broad. In cooler climates they will not reach such large proportions.

Spores develop on the underside of the fronds, forming long rows extending out from the midrib to the outer part of the frond. The fronds roll back as they turn brown, creating a massive nest of dry leaves in the branches and trunks of trees.

Types of Birds Nest Fern:

Asplenium nidus ‘Antiquum’

 ‘Antiquum’ has long, bright green arching leaves with pointed ends. Mature fronds have a decorative wavy edge, and develop a strong, distinctive brown midrib in the centre of the nest. Mature specimens can reach 90cm tall and spread 1.2m wide.

Click here to see Google images of Asplenium nidus 'Antiquum'

Asplenium nidus 'Osaka'

The ‘Osaka’ cultivar is a compact variety of the species, and has long, glossy leaves with rippled margins, giving the whole plant a rather luxuriant look. At maturity it can reach a height and spread of 1m or more.

Click here to see Google images of Asplenium nidus 'Osaka'

Asplenium nidus 'Crissie'

'Crissie' is a smaller version of bird's nest fern, and once mature it can reach about 80cm tall and wide. It is a real stunner with its unique frilly, emerald green foliage. The wild type of this birds nest fern is native to tropical Africa, Australia and Polynesia

Click here to see Google images of Asplenium nidus 'Crissie'

Asplenium nidus 'Crispy Wave'

'Crispy Wave' represents a captivating new cultivar with lush, deeply pleated, bright green leaves. It matures to about 60cm tall and 45cm wide.

Click here to see Google images of Asplenium nidus 'Crispy Wave'

Medicinal uses of birds nest ferns:

Asplenium nidus has been used locally in folk medicine for asthma, sores, weakness, and halitosis (bad breath).

How to cook with birds nest ferns:

The sprouts of Asplenium nidus are eaten in the Polynesian islands, where it is often cooked with coconut cream. In Taiwan where they are known as 山蘇, pronounced shansu, meaning "mountain vegetable", they are eaten as a garnish for Ohitashi (Spinach Salad) and Miso Soup, and may also be stir-fried or boiled. The larger fronds are also used for wrapping food in to steam.  This traditional vegetable has gained such popularity that today it even appears on the menus of chain restaurants.

How to use birds nest ferns in the garden & home:

Bird’s nest ferns are attractive, whimsical and enchanting, and Asplenium nidus has gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit.

In the warm subtropical regions of South Africa this fern is fantastic to use in the garden, and in tropical regions it often lives in palm trees, where it collects water and humus in its leaf-rosette.

Bird’s nest ferns make great bathroom plants, because they need high humidity levels and will take medium to lower light conditions indoors. However, they don’t like it too cold, so ensure that the temperature indoors never drops below 10°C.  They are also perfectly happy if placed on a table top or shelf in any living area or office, if provision is taken for a little extra humidity.

Because bird’s nest ferns are epiphytic plants they are wonderful to mount on an attractive piece of driftwood, bark, or cork. This method allows for good air circulation around the roots and will certainly add an interesting visual element to your plant displays. These ferns also work well in large terrariums.

An added bonus is that the birds nest fern is highly efficient at converting Carbon dioxide (CO2) into oxygen, and cleaning the air.

Image by Brian Clark from PixabayImage by Brian Clark from PixabayIndoor & outdoor cultivation of birds nest ferns:

In their natural environment birds nest ferns thrive in warm, moist, humid forests where they grow under the forest canopy where they are sheltered from the harsh sun, so if you are growing these ferns at home, be it indoors or outdoors, the best results are achieved if you can try to mimic the tropical conditions they love.

Naturally they will flourish in our subtropical regions, but in cold and frosty regions of the country they are prized indoor plants. Bird’s nest ferns thrive in temperatures between 15 and 27°C, and can tolerate temperatures down to 10°C, but anything colder than that can harm the plant.

Do not use leaf shine products on your bird’s nest ferns, as they’re very sensitive to chemicals. If your plant is looking a little dusty, wash it off with tepid water.

How much light do birds nest ferns need?

Because the fronds of these ferns can burn in harsh sunlight, they must be placed in shady areas of the garden where they will receive medium to bright indirect light. Indoors they will grow well in medium and even lower light conditions.

How much humidity do birds nest ferns need?

Indoors they prefer high humidity and enjoy moist environments such as a bathroom, greenhouse, or terrarium.

How to create a humid environment for birds nest ferns?

In dry regions you can run a humidifier near the plant, and placing potted plants in a drip tray filled with pebbles and water will also create some extra humidity around the foliage, without having the pot stand in a saucer full of water, which could cause root rot. Regularly misting the fronds with water also helps, and if you can use rain water do so, as ferns have sensitive leaves.

Grouping your plants together will also help, as the transpiration of groupings of plants will collectively increase the humidity levels around them, creating a little microclimate. Utilising a decorative bowl filled with water as part of your plant display will further enhance the humidity as well as the charm of your display.

Protect your indoor plants from cold draughts, air conditioning or heating vent drafts which can dry the air out.

What is the best growing medium for birds nest ferns?

If you are growing birds nest ferns in pots the growing medium you use is vital to the health of your plants. Generally, a mix of orchid bark, coarse perlite, and peat moss is recommended, but because peat moss is no longer considered to be sustainable, you can substitute it with palm peat. Some gardeners recommend using a high quality potting soil, amended with perlite. No matter what growing medium you use, just ensure that it’s loose, light, and rich in organic matter that will hold moisture, but which also has excellent drainage. Mounting this fern onto a piece of driftwood or bark allows for excellent drainage and air circulation around the roots.

How much water do birds nest ferns need?

Water is like lifeblood to these ferns, and they need a fair amount of it, but be careful not to overwater your plants as they don’t do well in soggy soil. Try to water so the growing medium is evenly moist, or whenever the top 2.5cm of soil is dry.

In nature water and debris collects in the crowns of these ferns, but when growing them at home, its best to avoid watering directly into the centre of the plant, as too much water in the crown can encourage mould and rot in the dense nest.

To get them to grow luxuriantly with healthy, shiny leaves, spray the plants regularly with a fine mist spray of water, or rainwater. To keep their roots moist, mounted specimens will need frequent misting, and an occasional a good soaking in a basin of water.

In autumn as temperatures decrease, gradually start to water less, and during winter you may only need to water every couple of weeks. However, if they’re in a room which gets very warm because of heaters etc. be fastidious about checking the soil as it will dry out quicker.

How to fertilise birds nest ferns?

During the summer growing season you can feed monthly with a specialised fern food, or any liquid fertiliser for leafy plants. Direct contact with some liquid fertilisers can burn the leaves of ferns, so if you are not using a specialised fern food, dilute it to half the recommended strength. Test a frond beforehand to check for sensitivity, or apply the fertiliser to the soil or growing medium only, and not to the fronds. Stop feeding in autumn and through winter.

How to repot birds nest ferns?

Birds nest ferns do not have a large root system, so you won’t need to repot very often. They will only really need a larger pot once they’ve grown so large that they’re unstable in their small container. This is typically only necessary every two to three years, and spring or early summer is the best time to repot. Avoid repotting during the winter months when the plant is dormant, as it may struggle to recover from the disturbance.

Select a container that's large enough to keep your plant stable, but do not be tempted to plant it into one that is too large – 3 to 5cm bigger is sufficient. Make sure that the pot has ample drainage holes, and often a ceramic pot is better than plastic to anchor the plant, and allows the roots to breath.

Carefully loosen your plant from its pot and set it in the new pot at the same depth as before, then fill around the root ball with fresh potting mix. Do not touch the roots unless the plant is very root bound, and you want to tease a few roots loose at the bottom before planting.

How to mount a birds nest fern?

Birds nest ferns are quite easy to mount onto a wooden board, cork or bark, but make sure you use a hard wood or bark that won’t decompose quickly, and you will also need to drill a hole into the mount to fit a small hanging bracket.

For mounting you can use sphagnum moss which is available from some garden centres for use in terrariums, as well as from bonsai growers and even some pet stores. Online you can order sheets of living moss which are perfect to use. To tie your fern onto the mount you can use garden or fishing twine.

Take your fern out of its pot and loosen up the bottom of the root ball gently with your fingers. If the roots are too dense, you can trim away some from the bottom.

Wrap the root ball with moistened moss to completely cover the roots and then use twine to secure the moss before mounting and tying the fern on the mount. Mist spray to ensure the root ball is completely moist, hang and enjoy!

Make sure that the moss around the roots never dries out completely by misting the plant regularly, or you can place the plant in a kitchen sink or tub to thoroughly soak the moss ball.

Asplenium spores Image by Lars from PixabayAsplenium spores Image by Lars from PixabayHow to propagate birds nest ferns?

For beginners, bird’s nest ferns can be tricky to propagate and many gardeners opt to rather purchase established plants.

Propagation is via spores, which look like fuzzy brown spots on the undersides of the fronds, and when they look especially plump and fuzzy, it's time to propagate. You will need a small paper bag, a small dish, sphagnum moss or palm peat, and plastic wrap or a clear plastic bag.

To collect the spores, cut off a frond and place it in a paper bag for a few days to allow the spores to fall off into the bag. Moisten some sphagnum moss or palm peat with water and place it in a small bowl with a little water to keep it moist but not waterlogged. Shake the spores onto the sphagnum moss, and cover the bowl with plastic wrap or fasten a clear plastic bag around it. Place in a warm, shaded spot and check that the moss remains moist by misting it when it feels a bit dry. Germination should occur in a few weeks, but can take a few months, so be patient.

Once the spores have germinated and small ferns have started to grow, you can remove the plastic cover. At this point, it’s important to provide the young plants with proper care. Place them in a bright location with indirect sunlight and maintain a consistent level of moisture in the soil.

Problems, pests & diseases of birds nest ferns:

Most of the problems, pest and diseases with birds nest ferns are related to an improper environment. Healthy, well cared for plants do not suffer from any serious pests or diseases, but they can be affected by some common insects, and outdoors they are susceptible to slugs and snails.

Rectify any environmental factors that may be causing stress to the plants then spray down your fern with a good quality pesticide, but try to keep it from pooling in the centre of the rosette. Because ferns are sensitive to some chemical insecticides, which damage their fragile leaves, a natural insecticidal soap is the best solution to combat pests on ferns.

Scale insects on birds nest ferns

A common pest that can trouble birds nest ferns is scale insects. These tiny pests attach themselves to the leaves and stems of the plant, causing damage by sucking out the sap, and if left untreated, scale insects can weaken the fern and hinder its growth.

Members can click here to read more about scale insects

Mealybugs on birds nest ferns

These small, soft-bodied insects are covered in a white, powdery substance and can quickly multiply if not addressed. Mealybugs feed on the plant’s sap, weakening it and causing stunted growth.

Members can click here to read more about Mealybugs

Spider mites on birds nest ferns

Spider mites can wreak havoc on your fern, causing extensive damage to the plant by piercing its cells and sucking out the contents. These tiny arachnids thrive in dry conditions and signs of infestation include yellowing leaves, webbing, and overall decline in the fern’s health. To prevent these pests, it’s important to maintain a humid environment around your fern and regularly mist its leaves.

Members can click here to read more about Spider Mites

Crispy leaf edges or curling leaves on birds nest ferns

Leaf curl and dry leaf edges can be a sign of insufficient watering or low humidity. Birds nest ferns prefer their soil staying lightly moist and drying out should be avoided. If crisping edges occur but you find the soil is still moist, you may need to raise the moisture levels in the air around your plant. This is easily achieved by placing your plant on a tray of moist pebbles or using a humidifier nearby.

Pale foliage or crisp brown spots on birds nest ferns

These symptoms are often caused by too much light or direct sunlight. If you notice that your fern is looking a little bleached or there are brown crisp patches on the leaves, then your plant may need to be relocated to a location with slightly less light. Birds nest ferns prefer medium to bright filtered light. If the lighting is correct but the plant still looks bleached, check the dryness of the soil, pale foliage is another sign that your plant may be thirsty.

Yellowing or black-tipped leaves on birds nest ferns

A few factors can cause yellowing, and often overwatering is cited as being the main culprit. However, if you find that leaves turn yellow infrequently, this is no cause for concern as this is the natural lifecycle of most plants. However, if yellowing happens on mass consider your watering regime. If you also start noticing black soggy tips on your fern, this is a clear sign of overwatering and can result in root rot.  If this has occurred you will need to re-pot your plant.

Bad smell or mould on birds nest ferns

Bad smell or mould in the centre of your plant is caused by watering into the centre of your fern, resulting in the new fronds starting to rot. Try removing any dead debris or mould and allow the centre of the fern to dry out. Always be sure to only water the soil and not into the middle of the plant.

Fungus gnats on birds nest ferns

Fungus gnats are small flies that lay their eggs in wet soil and the larvae feed on the plant’s roots, leading to root rot which can potentially kill the fern. To prevent fungus gnats, it’s important to avoid overwatering your fern and to ensure that the growing medium has proper drainage.

Root rot on birds nest ferns

Root rot is a common disease that can affect birds nest ferns if they are overwatered or if the soil doesn’t drain well. It occurs when the roots are constantly sitting in water, leading to the development of harmful fungi that attack the plant’s roots.

Are birds nest ferns toxic?

Birds nest ferns are not toxic to birds, cats, dogs, or humans, making them a great choice if you have pets or children in the home.