A Fair (Finicky) Maiden - How Not to Kill A Maidenhair Fern

She may be finicky, but she is irresistible. Amirite?

She may be finicky, but she is irresistible. Amirite?

I have a Maidenhair problem. I know. I can almost hear you saying "YAAS, PREACH GIRL."
My emotions have gone from devastation, to frustration, to cold resentment after successfully killing seven of these beauties. One such attempt ended with a soggy rotten mess, another a couple of dry sticks. One of them literally just disappeared. But, as I was sobbing into a crispy pile of fronds, I was also taking notes. So, I want to share some lessons learned the hard way, but first, a wee introduction.

There are over 200 Adiantum species growing all over the world, from New Zealand to the Andes. In fact, we have a lovely one that grows here in Victoria, Adiantum aleuticum, or the Western Maidenhair fern. She grows on moist rocky cliffs and along streams and gullies and has the distinctive delicate five-finger fronds.

The Greek genus name, Adiantum means 'not-wetting,' referring to the fern's ability to wick rain. Have you ever seen water droplets shimmering on a Maidenhair fern? Simply beautiful. I heard a tale that women used to make a hair tonic with the fern to dye their hair blonde, hence the name Maidenhair fern, and that their black stems were used for dyeing fibers and weaving small baskets.
Okay, enough with this...

Here are some tips on how not to kill your Maidenhair fern. 

If you have a mature Maidenhair, try and divide her! Pull gently on an outer clump, using a knife to loosen, plant in sterile potting soil or grow in water!

If you have a mature Maidenhair, try and divide her! Pull gently on an outer clump, using a knife to loosen, plant in sterile potting soil or grow in water!

  • Moisture. Never, ever NEVER let her dry out. She will literally crumble before your eyes.

  • Drainage. That being said, drainage is essential. Since the soil will be constantly wet, root rot is never far away. Make sure you remove excess water by gently tipping the pot into the sink.

  • Humidity. This one is important and there are options here. I found using a combination of all of them worked very well.

    • Mist daily. I know.

    • Group with other plants. Plants transpire and help each other out by sharing humidity.

    • Plant her in a terrarium or cloche! This provides a humid environment AND groups plants together!

    • Keeping her in a bathrooms or by the kitchen sink helps with humidity (and to remember to water) but make sure she's getting enough light.

    • Avoid putting them near heaters, fireplaces and drafty windows.

  • Light. Ferns love shade, right? Sorta. When they live inside they actually prefer lots of bright INDIRECT light, Maidenhair especially. If she isn't receiving enough light she will look leggy and her fronds will turn yellow.

  • Containers. She prefers her roots to be snug, don't jump up too many sizes when potting up. Also, I found that plastic or ceramic containers held moisture better than terra cotta, which is porous, therefore causes the soil to dry out much quicker.

  • Transplanting. She hates to be moved. Avoid disturbing her unless necessary and be prepared to see symptoms of shock (dropping/yellowing leaves, wilting, stagnant growth).

  • Trimming. Some drying and yellowing of the fronds will occur, no matter what you do. Just gently trim them off and move on.

  • Prune and Soak. Okay, so it looks like you've killed another one. Don't be so quick to toss her out! Trim all of the fronds down to her bulbous base (or to the soil if she has yet to form that booty), soak her really well, draining out excess water, and chances are she will begin to shoot out adorable new fronds!

One of my Maidens in a terrarium after I pruned her right back. Lots of new growth has come up as spring as arrived, but so have the aphids.... See those little black dots? Disgusting. So I trimmed her back AGAIN, sprayed everything with a tonic of castor soap and water and we;ll try again!

One of my Maidens in a terrarium after I pruned her right back. Lots of new growth has come up as spring as arrived, but so have the aphids.... See those little black dots? Disgusting. So I trimmed her back AGAIN, sprayed everything with a tonic of castor soap and water and we;ll try again!

My Rosey Maidenhair Fern,  Adiantum hispidulum,  is quite happy with a lot of thoughtful care.

My Rosey Maidenhair Fern, Adiantum hispidulum, is quite happy with a lot of thoughtful care.