What is a Tree Fern?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 24 December 2018
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A tree fern is a fern with a distinctive long, woody stem resembling the trunk of a tree, crowned with a cluster of fronds. Tree ferns can be found all over the world, with an estimated 1,000 species in the order Cyatheales being considered tree ferns. People interested in cultivating tree ferns in their gardens can find cultivars suitable to their climates at a nursery or garden store and may also be able to arrange trades or private sales with gardeners in their area.

Many people associate tree ferns with tropical settings, and the most diverse tree ferns are indeed tropical natives in areas like Australia and New Guinea. However, other species prefer cooler climates and can tolerate conditions in regions like Northern Europe. As a general rule, a tree fern prefers a moist environment with indirect sunlight. Direct sunlight can burn the fronds, and dry environments will not allow the plants to thrive.

As tree ferns grow, their roots thicken and extend to support the trunk. The individual fronds emerge as coils and slowly unfold over time to reveal pinnately compound fronds. Like other ferns, a tree fern reproduces with the use of spores. The spores can be seen lining the undersides of the frond and when people brush against the fronds, a dry, powdery residue can be left behind.


These ferns vary in size and shape. While the foliage grows above the level of the ground in all cases, their height varies depending on species and age. With some species, damage to the top of the fern will kill the plant because new growth is centered in the crown of fronds. In others, cutting off the top is an accepted method of transplantation. Other transplantation options include digging up an entire fern and keeping the root ball intact. This method usually works best with smaller plants.

A tree fern can be a striking landscaping feature. Gardeners working in shady areas or wanting to create a shade garden can use tree ferns as a key landscaping element and incorporate other shade-loving plants suitable to the environment. It is important to make sure that these plants have fertile, rich soil that retains moisture well to stay healthy. People should also take care to select tree fern species suitable for their climate. Staff at a nursery or garden supply can help gardeners identify and select plants that would be appropriate to their gardens.



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