Foxtail Fern: How to Grow Foxtail Fern
Looking for a stunning evergreen in your garden? The Foxtail Fern is a classic favorite, creating a different kind of vibe in any garden thanks to its lushly dense stalk that juts straight outward like a green plume. Even better – these plants are easy to care for and do not need tons of water – which is great if you live in a sunny part of the world. Here’s what you need to know about this particular plant.
The Foxtail Fern is known by several names such as Asparagus Fern and Myers Fern. It has the scientific name Asparagus Densiflorus. It’s important to differentiate it from the Asparagus Aethiopicus which looks similar but is slightly different upon closer inspection. You will find that both types are called Foxtail Ferns so I f you want further distinction, using the terms “Meyeri” and “Sprengeri” would give you a better idea on which is which. Later on, we’ll talk about how to distinguish one from the other.
In terms of care and cultivation however, there is practically no difference between the two. However, you might want to think twice about having both in your garden, especially if you intend to plant them directly onto the ground.
These plants are classified as “beginner” plants because they’re so easy to care for and cultivate. If you’re just starting a garden or want an indoor plant that doesn’t need too much care – then this would make a great addition to your home.
Facts About Foxtail Fern
Despite the name, Foxtail Ferns are not really ferns and are actually part of the lily family. They’re a favorite for landscaping gardens because they have a very symmetrical appeal to them, creating beautiful little bushels of equal layers. Even a slight droopiness to the stalks have a very flower-like quality to them – and they’re very easy to care for! The plants originate from the South African region which is why they have no problem being exposed to the sun. You can also find these plants thriving in Mediterranean climates or countries close to equator.
Foxtail Ferns are sun worshippers – which means that they’re best grown in sunny climate. If you live anywhere within Zones 9 to 11, then these plants would be perfect as part of your landscape. While typically planted directly on the ground, these plants will also thrive when grown in pots, provided you don’t overwater them or allow them to become too crowded. Indoor growing of these plants is also possible provided you put them in a room where there’s generous sunlight.
The size of the pot doesn’t really matter because the Foxtail Fern will adjust accordingly. Keep in mind though that its maximum size is anywhere from 2 to 3 feet in both height and width. Hence, it’s possible for the plant to grow too big for its pots. Fortunately, transplanting it is easy enough, giving you several Foxtail Ferns for display.
These plants can grow big if you give them the chance. Mature ones can have the height of 2 to 3 feet. The same goes for its width, therefore covering a large portion of your garden space. Note though that as most other plants, they are confined to the size of their pot so if you put them in a smaller container, you’ll get a smaller growth. The primary aesthetic appeal of this plant however is the fact that it looks a bit like a plume crown – as if you have a dozen or so foxes tails all bunched together and waving at you. It’s definitely a worth centerpiece, especially with its amazing height and width.
As mentioned, the most distinctive feature of this plant would be the combined look of its leaves. The name is actually perfect because the plant is exactly how you would imagine a fox’s tail if it were done in vibrant deep green. The leaves themselves are small and grow symmetrically from a stalk, creating a vibrant brush that points upwards. They’re long and lush with a cylindrical shape that starts right on top of the ground and then all the way up. These evergreen plants have a layered look to them that makes them perfect in landscaping to add depth and volume to a garden. Think pine needles but at a softer texture.
These plants come in different shades of green, starting off as deep evergreen and then lightening up as the stalk grows upward. The leaves are hugely indicative of the health of the plant so you want to make sure that there’s no yellowing of the stalk, especially those that are freshly grown. Yellow coloring of the leaves can indicate watering problems, too much sunlight, or pests. Fortunately, the stark green color of these plants makes it very easy to spot the white-colored pests that feed off its stalks. Remember that these plants love full to partial shade so always put them in places where they get enough morning sun.
Once mature, you’ll notice little white flowers growing on the plant. These are highly attractive to honey bees so if you’re also growing fruits in your garden, it’s a good idea to plant Foxtail Ferns close to them, therefore ensuring open pollination. They’re seasonal bloomers so you’d notice these flowers only during certain points of the year. Once they bloom, they look beautiful and even more delicate than usual.
These little white flowers will soon turn into berries which contains the seed of the plant. Though they look tempting, make sure not to eat any of them. It won’t kill humans, but it will cause discomfort for the rest of the day. Birds may also choose to swipe down and grab the berries. Make sure your cat or dog doesn’t eat those berries though because they’re known to be poisonous for the pets.
Types of Foxtail Fern
As mentioned, there are two types of Foxtail Fern today. The primary distinction between the two is that the A. Densiflorus or Meyeri sticks upward while the A. Aethiopicus droops a bit. Typically, you’d find these two plants combined to create a layered look in the landscape. For this article however, note that we’re only talking about the Meyeri and not the Sprengeri.
The Sprengeri looks a lot like the Foxtail Fern that even landscape artists can mistake one for the other. As mentioned, the identifying feature of the Sprengeri is that it tends to droop because the stems are thinner. If you see a plant being sold with the name “asparagus fern” then it could either be the Sprengeri or the Meyeri. The word “Foxtail Fern” however is almost exclusively used for the Meyeri variety.
It’s important to make the distinction between the two because the Sprengeri can easily take over a garden when unwatched. If you look closely, you will also notice that the Sprengeri has a lighter hue and seems to have more spindly stalks. Instead of a fox tail, the Sprengeri is more like green tentacles springing off the ground. They’re also beautiful of course but knowing exactly what you’re growing is important if you’re starting a garden.
Now, while some gardeners like to have both varieties for layering purposes, there are those who avoid the Sprengeri because they can be quite invasive. When allowed to grow alongside other plants, they can easily overtake the garden and it can be tough to get rid of them. In fact, in Florida, Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia – these plants are considered weed. Unless you’re prepared to do lots of pruning, try not to plant the Sprengeri variety in your garden.
How to Grow Foxtail Fern
As mentioned, these plants are very easy to grow and therefore do not need much in terms of resources. Unless you live in a climate with freezing temperature, the Foxtail Fern can be grown outdoors with minimal attention on your part.
Foxtail Ferns aren’t picky when it comes to soil. They can tolerate most times provided you give them enough food, water, and sunlight. Most gardeners however recommend the use of a well-draining soil because this helps prevent standing water. Since the plant is prone to root rot, you’d want to make sure that it isn’t surrounded by water for long periods of time.
According to experts, Foxtail Ferns prefer a slightly acidic soil, but this doesn’t always have to be the case. However, if you want to promote growth, putting mulch around the soil of the plant should offer some slow release fertilizer to keep it happy.
These plants do not need to be watered often. You can water it once a week and then make sure the soil is completely dry before watering it again. Ideally, the top three inches of the plant should be allowed to dry out completely before giving it another round of water.
Foxtail Ferns are a lot like cacti in that they store water for the drought season. Their roots are tubular which contains most of the water for the dry season. For this reason, it’s usually not a good idea to overwater the plant – otherwise they’d have fungal root rot. Don’t worry if you miss watering them because they have their tubular roots for backup. Just make sure that you can refresh their soil before the stalks start to droop.
When grown outdoors, you shouldn’t have any problem providing the right amount of humidity for this plant to thrive. They prefer high humid surroundings at around 40 to 50 percent relative humidity.
Indoors however, you’d want to make sure there’s enough water in the air for the Foxtail Fern. A good technique is to mist the plant itself every few days or so. Note – the mist should be on the plant itself and NOT the soil.
Light & Temperature
These plants are happy with partial to full sunlight in the morning. During the harsh afternoon sun however, they’d prefer to be kept under the shade. Try to move pots around when the sunlight is at its full tilt during the peak summer months, otherwise just leave it out to bask in the sun.
Temperature-wise, these plants will thrive in areas where the heat is maintained from 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. They can also live on colder climates as long as it doesn’t hit below 25 degrees Fahrenheit. As mentioned, these plants thrive best when grown in Zones 9 to 11.
If you want to have more Foxtail Ferns in your garden, the best way is to separate fully grown ferns into different pots. Or maybe you just want to transfer an already-big fern into a new location. In either case, the process is basically similar.
Start by digging around the base of the plant and loosening the soil around it. Once done, carefully remove the Foxtail Fern by the soil surrounding the roots. You’ll notice that there are little white tubes attached to the roots – this is the food storage of the plant.
Now carefully separate the stalks you want to transplant, making sure that each stalk comes with the tubes they’re attached to. You can divide the Foxtail Fern into as much divisions as you want as long as each division has at least two or three stalks. You don’t want to transplant a single stalk as this will not be able to survive.
Take your new pot and dig a few inches into it before carefully placing the plant inside it. Make sure that the tube is completely buried underneath by packing the soil around it. Water the plant and give it some sunlight. Remember that the plant is at its most vulnerable when newly transplanted so expose it only to early-morning sun and then shade it during the harsher time of the day. Note that it will take a few years for the plant to really establish itself into its new soil.
You’d want to give this plant slow-release fertilizer during the start of each season. The granular type would be best when applied at the start of spring, summer, and then fall. For balance 10-10-10 liquid fertilizer, you’d want to apply it at half-strength every month. For those who have compost, you can use this instead of the fertilizer.
Understand that it’s possible to put too much fertilizer on plants so don’t be too generous in placing plant food for the Foxtail Fern, especially if you have it placed in a pot. Always look into the leaves to properly discern the state of its health. As long as the stalks are pointing upwards and the leaves are at a healthy green, then everything should be fine.
Pruning is only necessary when the ferns start to become yellowish in color. This usually happens first to the outside stalks as new ones spring from the center. Cut those stalks from the bottom so there’s room for the new ones to grow. Cutting the older yellow ones would also save the plant from wasting necessary energy on that particular stalk.
Deadened or brown stalks can be out of reach when pruning because you’ve left it too long. If this happens, carefully lift the stalks upward so you can spy the brown stalks as they emerge from the bottom. Cut from the edge closest to the ground to thin it out. Use gloves for this because some people find the stalks scratchy on the hands.
Note that you should NOT cut from the top. Let’s say that you have a Foxtail Fern stalk that’s slightly drooping. Half of the leaves on a stalk are yellow and the rest are still deep green. Do not cut just the yellow part. If you want to prune the plant, cut the whole stalk completely and not just a part of it. This would help improve the chances of the plant into regaining back its health.
Sometimes, the Foxtail Fern can grow so dense that the new growth is smothered by the older ones. While you can leave it like this, it’s often better to cut off the older stalks – even if they’re still vibrantly green. This will help the new ones to prosper.
While hardy, you also want to pay close attention to the plant because they are vulnerable to certain pests, specifically scale insects. These are white little bumps like aphids spanning the leaves of the plant. You can easily notice this if you take a good look at the plant even before the first signs of infestation occur. During the start of the infestation, you can individually remove the insects with the help of cotton and rubbing alcohol. If there are too many white stuff, you can also try spraying neem oil on the plant.
Pruning doesn’t have to be done on a frequent basis. A few times in a span of months will work just fine because the stalks and leaves are remarkably long-lived. They will retain their shape and color for a long period of time before starting to become yellow and dry out.
These plants can be propagated either through seed or through the tubular roots. Once the Foxtail Fern has grown big enough, it will produce flowers and then those beautiful red berries. The berries contain the seeds which can be planted to grow new ferns. Obviously, it would take longer for you to grow these seeds into full-fledged Foxtail Ferns.
If you want things faster, you can also divide the plant for new growth. Just make sure that each stalk comes with a tubular root for transplanting, therefore increasing its chances of survival. Ideally, you should transplant two or three stalks at a time to better increase the odds. Transplanting is best done when you notice overcrowding in the pot, especially when the tubular roots start to come out of the surface. Understand that a newly transplanted Foxtail Fern may take years to establish itself into its new spot.
The Foxtail Fern is a water-sufficient plant that may look fragile but is actually wonderfully hardy. It’s the perfect landscaping evergreen for homeowners that want a beautiful but water-saving garden. Incredibly easy to grow and cultivate, the Foxtail Fern practically takes care of itself once the roots have grown strong enough. They’re ideal for areas with long summers and warm winters, allowing them to thrive all year round in the outdoors.
While their main purpose is for garden landscaping, these plants are also used for flower arrangements because of their lush leaves. If you’re considering cultivating this plant in your garden, check your location’s Zone. If you are anywhere between 9 and 11 – then this might be the perfect addition to your home.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Foxtail plants toxic or poisonous?
The sap of the Foxtail Fern can cause some itching and irritation for those who have sensitive skin. The berries produced by the plant on the other hand can cause some gastrointestinal distress for humans. For animals, the berries are poisonous so make sure that your pets stay away from the plant during flowering season.
Are foxtail ferns easy to grow?
Yes, they’re quite easy to grow because they’re not very picky. They don’t need constant watering and can survive even in hard-packed soil. Of course, they also need fertilizer but this is something you only have to do once a month. With a rich soil system and frequent rains, the Foxtail Fern can be left on its own and it can still grow lush stalks that point upwards. Pruning only needs to be done when the older stalks start to droop or turn yellow.
Can foxtail fern grow in full sun?
Having been a native of South Africa, these plants love a full sun but will thrive best on the morning rays. They might have a harder time withstanding the full force of the noonday sun however so you’d want to place them somewhere with a bit more shade come the afternoon. As for the cold season – you’d want to keep them indoors as they’re not built for freezing temperature.