Many ferns are super hard to keep alive – especially for new plant parents. But the foxtail is a great way to add a tough specimen to your collection that looks great anywhere in the home (or the garden). Don’t worry if you don’t have a green thumb. Our guide is packed with tips and information to transform your first foxtail fern into a plush delight!
Table of Contents
The Benefits of Choosing a Foxtail Fern
- Exotic appearance.
- Suitable for container gardening.
- Can live happily outdoors.
- Returns year after year.
- Can be propagated at home.
- Resistant to drought.
Origins and Appearance
Also known as Asparagus densiflorus, the asparagus fern or plume asparagus, the foxtail is native to South Africa, Mozambique and everything in between. Due to its geographic origins, this plant has evolved to withstand harsh conditions including drought and windy weather.
Not a True Fern
Indeed, for a long time, even the best botanists were fooled by the foxtail’s appearance. However, a true fern reproduces mainly via spores. The foxtail does not have spores. Instead, it propagates itself through seed (found inside its red berries).
The family tree of this plant is more closely related to the asparagus sitting on your dinner plate than any real ferns. Even so, the foxtail is fern-like and remains a beautiful option for those who struggle with the often complicated demands of true ferns.
It’s not difficult to see why this plant is called the foxtail fern. The feathery stalks resemble the plush tail of a fox or a cat. Indeed, in South Africa, it is sometimes referred to as the cat tail plant. The “tails” are strong and stiff, yet curvy. When a foxtail has plenty of stalks, the effect is truly stunning.
The plant is also evergreen and produces tiny white flowers in spring. The blooms turn into beautiful berries that hold the seeds of the next generation. When grown from seedlings, it takes about 3 years for a plant to reach maturity.
When mature, the foxtail stands at 2 to 3 feet tall and can grow up to 3 feet wide. Their root system is also just as tough, designed to anchor the plant and store enough water to weather the occasional drought.
Temperature and Humidity
Your foxtail fern is a hardy customer. But that being said, if you want to encourage optimal growth and plenty of flowers, do yourself a favor and make sure that you tick the following boxes – the correct light, heat and humidity.
Partial or Indirect Sunlight
Sure, the foxtail fern has a reputation for being tough. But too much sunlight is not the best idea. The plant loves partial or dappled shade outdoors. It can even handle the direct morning sun but not the rays of a hot afternoon. For your container fern, place the pot in a room where it can soak up plenty of indirect but bright sunlight.
When exposed to direct sunlight for too long, the leaves will eventually burn. Keep in mind that the opposite can be just as bad. When the plant receives too much shade, the leaves will turn yellow.
Mild to Warm Temperatures
The ideal range for a foxtail fern is between 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit (18 and 21 degrees Celsius). Although it can tolerate colder temperatures, anything below 25 degrees Fahrenheit (-3 degrees Celsius) is a big no-no. For this reason, if you live in a region where the nights are very cold or snowflakes appear during the winter, bring your fern indoors. If the plant is established in the garden, you might want to consider building some kind of shelter to protect it against frost and snow.
Average to High Humidity
Being native to Africa, the foxtail fern can survive in average humidity but flourishes when the levels are higher than normal. You can increase the humidity in two ways – mist the plant regularly or place the container on a pebble tray that contains water. This will provide ample ambient humidity for your indoor fern.
Watering and Feeding
The foxtail fern is a great choice if you hate wasting water – or you often forget to water your plants (hey, it happens to the best of us!). This plant has a strong taproot that also acts as a water reservoir to fight off droughts. Due to this feature, you can treat your fern similar to a succulent.
The best way to water a foxtail fern is to keep two things in mind. The first is to give a deep, weekly watering. Secondly, when the next week swings by and the soil’s top 3 inches (7.6 cm) is not dried out, then wait a few more days. Otherwise, you risk overwatering your plant and this opens the door to root rot and other problems.
Foxtail ferns respond well to fertilizer. If you want to encourage your plant to grow lusher and possibly even produce a richer blooming season, then try these three things.
- Instead of fertilizer, add mulch or organic material to the soil before your pot or plant your fern in the garden.
- Add a slow-release, granular fertilizer to the plant at the beginning of the growing seasons (spring and summer).
- Give bi-weekly feedings during the growing seasons, using an organic liquid fertilizer like fish emulsion.
Soil and Repotting
Avoid Dense Soil
Ideally, a foxtail fern thrives in soil that is slightly acidic. However, it does not really mind the pH of the soil as much as the drainage. It is far more important to pot or plant your foxtail in soil that is well-draining. This will help to prevent the roots from becoming waterlogged and rotting, seeing that the taproot is already gorged with H20!
Stick to Slight Larger Pots
When repotted, most other houseplants are happy when their new container is much bigger than the old one. However, this might not work with foxtail ferns. When there is too much space and soil, there is a chance that extra moisture will hang around longer than it should and cause all sorts of problems. The golden rule is to wait until your fern becomes rootbound and then upgrade to a pot that is about 2 inches (5 cm) bigger in diameter.
Get all the best tips on how to re-pot your house plants.
When to Prune a Foxtail Fern
A foxtail in the garden does not require pruning. However, you are more than welcome to snip off any damaged, dry or unsightly foliage. This will keep the fern’s appearance neat. When kept in a container, this plant also has no real need for pruning except to remove dead or diseased stalks.
Pro Tip: Giving your fern a haircut once or twice a year will also encourage the plant to become more robust and healthy.
Pests and Diseases
Here’s another reason why foxtail ferns are great for beginners – it’s pretty resistant to health problems and bugs. But no plant is without troubles. A foxtail that is not receiving great care or happens to sit next to another plant infected with a disease or pest, then the malady can jump to your fern. Let’s look at the most common problems and how you can show them the door!
The main threat comes from sap-sucking insects. These include aphids, mealybugs and scale insects. When left unchecked, they can make your foxtail very sick. Use a good, organic pesticide or horticultural soap to treat your affected plants.
The biggest issue is overwatering. This can lead to fungal infections, withering leaves and root rot. Stick to the weekly schedule but only water when the soil’s top 3 inches are dry. If your plant already has a fungal infection, use an organic fungicide to contain the problem. There is not much you can do about root rot. For this reason, correct watering is a must from the start.
Q: Is my foxtail fern safe around pets and kids?
Experts cannot seem to agree on this. However, there is reason to believe that a foxtail fern is not entirely safe, so keep your plant well out of reach of uninformed persons, pets and children.
Q: Why are the stems of my foxtail fern turning brown?
This is usually nothing to worry about. As the plant grows, the older stems will turn brown as they die – and this is completely normal. However, when the browning affects more than a third of the plant, it needs more water.
Q: Can I use foxtail plumes in my flower decorations?
The stem of a foxtail fern is a popular choice for florists. Not just because of the fern’s exotic appearance but also its longevity. After being cut, the stems can last in arrangements for as long as three weeks.
Q: How can I give my foxtail fern a more even appearance?
The stalks of this plant tend to lean towards sunlight, often giving it a lopsided appearance. The solution is to turn the pot just a little bit every few days. This will transform your fern into a bushy, well-balanced plant.
Q: When is the best time of year to repot my foxtail fern?
You can repot your foxtail fern during the spring.
Q: How do I propagate my foxtail fern?
The easiest way is through division which can be done during the spring. If you love growing seeds, then collect the red berries and harvest the pips. The latter is the longer route but you can grow foxtail ferns from seed.