No plant can ever spell “lush underbrush” like ferns do. We associate them with wild, unleashed rainforests, tropical-looking foliage, the undergrowth of oak and larch woods, and even archaic forests, where dinosaurs would roam free.
Bushy or slender and elegant, dark green or silver-grey-green ferns take on many shapes with sometimes very different leaves (called fronds).
From one type to another, the exotic leaves of ferns are very in the shape, size or color of their fronds. Some are curly, others are feather-shaped or even smooth, without frills.
With over 10,500 different known species of ferns, there are bound to be one or more ferns that will look great in your home gardens, offices, patio, and even living rooms.
Here is a list of 20 stunning fern varieties to grow indoors or outdoors with pictures and useful tips to help you to identify the different species of ferns and give them the care they need.
What Is a Fern?
A fern is a class of plants that reproduce via spores, not flowers nor seeds. While botanists are still bickering about the classification of these plants, most would agree that they belong to the Petridophytes division.
Still, gardeners, garden centers and retailers will call “ferns” even plants that are not technically so, like the asparagus fern (Asparagus aethiopicus), which has flowers and does not produce spores.
So, in gardening terms, defining a fern has more to do with the appearance, shape, look and presence of a plant than with its actual scientific group.
Still, many firs come from tropical regions, and, as you know, tropical plants often have an original, exotic appearance.
Having said this, many also come from temperate regions, and these are very suitable outdoors if winters are cold.
Ferns and Gardening
Ferns are mainly appreciated for their foliage; many are evergreens, making them excellent for keeping some foliage green when other leaves fall, especially in winter. They are often used to “fill” spaces in borders, flower beds, and underbrush in the same trees.
In fact, many of them are very adaptable to dappled shade, even full shade, and they provide an excellent backdrop for flowers.
Moreover, they always bring that idea of fertility, of a place rich in water, protected from the outside world, unblemished.
You see, you look at a Fern, and you immediately think there’s a spring of water somewhere in the vicinity.
This is why ferns in gardens always bring that sense of “privacy” and “cosiness”, of being in a peaceful and sheltered place where you are safe. Of course, they are also a must in any exotic garden.
However, indoors, ferns are often used to bring a touch of “exotic permanence”. Because they look immutable, often being green and lush all year round, a fern on your desk or by your sofa will tend to bring a sense of peace matched only by the sculptural qualities of the fern itself you have chosen.
If you are under the impression that all ferns look the same, think again! Look at this list of amazing plants, and you will find that they are of all colors, shapes, leaf shapes and sizes…
20 Different Types of Ferns for Your Indoor and Outdoor Spaces
As you can see, there are many decorative uses for ferns indoors and outdoors. Their names must have tickled your imagination… now, wait to see what they are like, and you’ll walk away wanting to get one, just that ideal one, to grow in your garden or at home!
So, without further ado, let’s meet 20 wonderful types of ferns that you can grow indoors as houseplants or outdoors in your garden:
1. ‘Grey Ghost’ Lady Fern (Athyrium Niponicum ‘Grey Ghost’)
Just to prove my point that there’s a lot of variety with ferns, how about a silvery white one? This cultivar is called ‘Grey Ghost’ because the shade of the leaves is just surreal.
It looks like a plant from the Moon, not Earth. And in fact, it has a great lunar quality to it.
However, the mid rib adds to the visual effect of the shiver leaves as it is actually reddish purple. No wonder it has won the Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society.
The leaf shape is not unusual like other fern species, as is bio innate and alike those of most fiddlehead ferns (which is still fantastic), but its very original shade makes it a very ethereal presence in any garden.
This species of ferns are absolutely perfect for modern, even minimalist gardens, where it can even take center stage, but also as a touch of originality in more traditional gardens, where you can even use this fern as undergrowth for roses and shrubs.
2. Hart’s Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolipendrium)
If the exotic look of the foliage is what you are after, you can have it even in temperate zones with the amazing hart’s tongue fern varity.
The leaves, in fact, are bright, light green, very glossy and exotic looking. They form a beautiful rosette with their arching leaves, which are not divided or frilled, but look like little snaps or tongues.
When the spores form, the underside of this fern’s leaves becomes brownish, which actually adds to its decorative value.
It will bring a tropical mood to any terrace or patio, where you can easily grow it in containers, but also in beds and borders and, if you fancy a large and lush “Paleolithic meadow”, this outdoor fern can also be used as ground cover.
Despite its exotic appearance is is cold hardy, and this variety too won the Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society.
3. Staghorn Fern (Platycerium spp.)
The name of this Fern says it all: its fronds look like the horns of deer, and they eradicate from a central point, making this fern variety perfect for hanging baskets and similar containers.
It is, of course, a tropical fern, with an incredibly showy appearance, a perfect centerpiece for a patio, terrace, or as an indoor plant.
Its dropping fronds that look like kelp to some, glossy and bright green, can lift any place with their unmissable presence.
It grows naturally on tree trunks, it’s an epiphyte; this means that it will absorb both humidity and nutrients directly from the air, and for this reason, you can even fit it into a small crevice or hole on a tree or on a decorative wood post. Flotsam is excellent for compositions with staghorn ferns.
Alternatively, you can use it in compositions with other tropical, or at least very sculptural plants, like banana plants, palms, bromeliads, anthuriums etc. And if you fancy a rock garden with an exotic feel, a staghorn fern will not look out of place.
4. Delta Maidenhair (Adiantum raddianum)
From the exotic showiness of the staghorn fern to the filigree texture of a small, but charming and elegant fern: delta maidenhair.
This fairly small Fern variety will produce an abundance of fronds with a purple – black stalks and the leaves, delta shaped (the clue was in the name) will create a wonderful effect of dappled light and rich foliage.
This delicate but intriguing beauty is ideal for both exotic and cottage or temperate looks, depending on what plants you grow it next to.
With tropical flowers, it can be used to give a backdrop that looks like green, natural lace, while with less architectural plants, it gives a sense of lush foliage and unusual underbrush.
Alternatively, you can grow it in pots and hanging baskets, where it will bring a touch of joy to bookshelves, desks and tables. If you grow it indoors, however, keep it away from drafts.
5. Hen and Chickens Fern (Asplenium bulbiferun)
Here is a fern variety with completely different foliage; the fronds, which are light green and divided into many thin, almost needle like parts, arch very elegantly and may remind you a bit of pine branches.
This type of fern plant will give you a totally different effect from the others we have seen so far.
The feathery nature of makes it ideal as a decorative underbrush, or to accompany flowering plants in flower beds and borders, but also as a light but rich presence in patios, on terraces and indoors, in pots or hanging baskets.
6. Kangaroo Fern (Microrosum diversifoliun)
Didn’t I say that ferns have many different shapes and looks? Here is more evidence: kangaroo fern has very glossy leaves of a very deep shade of green, which give it a very exotic look, and they are divided into about 14 to 22 wide, pointed tongue like parts, that make the fronds look very lush indeed.
This is a fern that will look good in any exotic and tropical setting, both indoors and outdoors. In your garden, it will look good next to bold and showy plants, in borders or under larger tropical plants.
But even in pots on a terrace or patio it will guarantee that loom we associate with explorers in the Congo or Papua New Guinea, even if this Fern hails from Australia.
Indoors, of course my its great sculptural presence has made it a favorite in elegant offices, hotels and living rooms.
7. Bird’s Nest Fern (Asplenium nidum)
Related to the hart’s tongue fern, the bird’s nest fern has another thing in common with “her sister”: both have won the Award of Garden Merit of the Royal Horticultural Society for its exceptional beauty.
It has tongue shaped, strong looking and glossy fronds, with a dark midrib and they curl at the top.
They have wavy margins, which add a dynamic movement to the appearance of the fronds. They also tend to grow upright, rather than arch, and, as they all grow from a common point in the center, the ensemble looks like a nest.
This plant, also from Australia, is an epiphyte too, so it will grow well in small containers, hanging baskets, on trees and in the crannies of a rock garden, where it will be a very exotic looking presence.
However, you can also grow it in normal pots for indoor spaces, or, if in the open air, in beds and borders where you wish to add a tropical touch.
8. Painted Lady Fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum ‘Burgundy Lace’)
We have already met lady fern, which is astounding for its silver gray foliage; well, painted lady Fern is a close relative, but the fronds of this fern variety are of a very striking burgundy purple shade.
But the effect does not end here… As they mature, the fronds turn silver green, which gives an impressive contrast between the lower, older foliage, and the younger, burgundy shoots.
This fern species actually looks like a natural Christmas decoration, and if you play with the exceptional chromatic effect of this plant, and place it next to other shades of green, off white or purple. You can create amazing borders.
It will grow well also next to ponds, where it can bring its own unusual palette of colors, and, you will be pleased to know, this is one of the few plants you can grow under roses and other shrubs.
Because of all these qualities, it suits any type of garden, be it cottages gravel gardens, informal and traditional.
9. Eagle Fern (Pteridium aquilinum)
This classical looking fern, with long and dark green fronds, of triangular shape and divided, is a lesser known variety to gardeners, but used for food in East Asia, and it is a great deciduous plant to grow under trees, by bushes and, in general, if you want that fresh underbrush feel in your garden.
It is an easy plant to grow thanks to its underground rhizomes, which make it easy to plant and propagate.
It would also look good in wild and natural looking compositions, whether in borders or flowerbeds. This is a large plant, so, it is suitable for wide open spaces, rather than little beds and low borders.
While it has been part of the diet of some population, this plant actually has serious health hazards (it’s carcinogenic and it deprives you of vitamin B1), so, do not eat it.
10. Crocodile Fern (Microsorun musifolium ‘Crocodyllus’)
Meet a stunning, exotic and evocative looking type of fern that won’t pass unnoticed by your guests: crocodile fern, which takes its name from the look of its fronds, that look like the sadly skin of a crocodile.
The fronds have a fleshy appearance, of a light green color and with a pattern of raised patches surrounded by shallow grooves that, as we said, make it look like the glossy and shiny skin of an green reptile.
This makes it ideal as an eye catching houseplant, but it would also look impressive in warm garden as part of a flower bed or in a rock garden.
As it is an epiphyte, it will also feel at home on trunks and in the crannies of your wall, along with bromeliads and other tropical plants.
11. Holly Fern (Cyrtomium falcatum)
With deep green colored fronds, of a very glossy nature and waxy texture, divided into lanceolate segments, this fern has the qualities to feel at ease in both tropical and temperate wood settings, both outdoors and indoors.
This makes it a very eclectic fern, which you can use in flowerbeds, as underbrush or borders to add lush and architectural foliage, whether you want your garden to have a tropical look or a cottage look.
Actually, it would even adapt to a northern look, adding, though, that touch of boldness you get from exotic plants.
Being evergreen, it will also provide green foliage during the winter months.
12. Asparagus Fern (Asparagus aethiopicus)
Technically not a fern for botanists, Adparagus aethiopicus is used as a darn by gardeners, and sold like one in garden centers.
Why? Well, it does flower, but the flowers are small, it has not spires, but it looks like a fern. So, if you are prepared to cheat on science for the ferry look of this plant, here we go…
It has long branches with needle like leaves in a pinnate (bipinnate, to be exact) formation, that give it a very light but striking appearance.
The branches arch, as many fronds of fern do, making it a good plant to grow in hanging baskets, where you will often find it.
Indoors, it is good for a minimalist or modern look to your office or living space; outdoors, it looks great between the rocks of a rockery, where it will give you that Mediterranean feel we all so much love, or with other plants as backdrop in flower beds or borders.
13. Giant Wood Fern (Dryopteris goldieana)
Here is a type of outdoor fern that will look wonderful in woody places, in borders, in flowerbeds and as a backdrop to other plants, flowering or not: giant wood fern.
Although it is called giant, it is not that big, reaching 4 feet, or 120 cm in height, but a more substantial 6 feet (180 cm) in spread.
Native of North America, this plant has divided fronds coming from a central rosette and with large and composite segments.
This gives the foliage of this fern a very rich and texture rich complexion. Their color is of a light pastel green with a touch of yellow in it.
Giant wood Fern is very hardy indeed, but deciduous, so, you will not enjoy it in winter, but it will look great in borders and beds, and it will add texture and a more architectural dimension to wild meadows as well.
14. Northern Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum)
A relative of delta maidenhair fern, Adiantum pedatum has beautiful thin, black stems that hold fronds that divide into blades, which look a bit like the wings of insects in shape, attached to the stems by their larger part.
These are pea green in color, and very shiny and glossy, giving you a wonderful effect with light and shade in your garden or in containers.
The fronds do not arch nor grow upright; instead, they grow horizontally from a central rosette.
This too makes this fern very attractive and particular. In fact, it will look stunning growing from crevices in walls, in rock gardens, but also in hanging baskets.
15. Maidenhair Sleepwort (Asplenium trichomanes)
Nothing will look better growing between rocks than maidenhair fern! This small but stunning plant has hard, black stems with frond segments growing on both sides and spaced between them, of a rounded shape, that look a bit like a fairy ladder…
The foliage is shiny, light green and arching, so, it also looks great in hanging baskets, on walls, and in pots.
You can also grow this tiny but adorable fern in beds and borders, or even under roses and shrubs.
16. Australian Tree Fern (Sphaeropteris cooperi)
Do you fancy a big fern that has the hallmark of exotic forests?
Australian tree fern, a lace tee fern that looks like the palm like ferns you have seen in Jurassic Park or dinosaur documentaries is exactly that! It can turn any garden into a tropical landscape with its presence.
This palm like run has a long brown trunk with a hairy and fuzzy cover, and on top of it, the very beautiful, arching and delicate fronds come from a central rosette, forming a natural parasol of segmented foliage, which is wide and of a light green, shiny color.
This plant, of course, needs to have a central spot in full view wherever you wish to grow it, whether in your garden or in a large container on your terrace.
Avoid touching it though, as it will give you an itchy skin.
17. Rabbit’s Foot Fern (Davallia fejeensis)
Did I say that ferns actually have many more shapes than people think? Well, rabbit’s foot Fern is so called because it has fuzzy rhizomes that grow out of the soil and look like, of course, rabbit’s feet.
On top of these cuddly paws, you will get a display of thick fronds with lacy and very decorative fronds, each divided into a many segments forming an overall triangular shape.
These plants are epiphytes, so, they will grow well in very small spaces, in pots, in hanging baskets, containers and between the stones of your rock garden.
The they will push forth their hairy feet, which will drape over the rocks, stones, bricks etc., which is the best way to exalt this very peculiar feature.
18. Lacy Tree Fern (Cyathaea cooperi)
Still talking of the strange, tree like ferns you see next to dinosaurs in books and films, lacy tree fern is a large species from Australia that looks like a palm, and even more imaginative and exotic than Australian tree fern.
Why? The trunk, still fuzzy and brown, opens up into branches that look like long fingers, or the spokes or an umbrella or, at least this is how I see it, a strange upside down candelabrum made of flotsam. The older branches can be cut, forming like a step ladder in the main trunk.
The fronds, which are but a continuation of the branches, will then arch down with majestic elegance, large and wide. Each will divide then into smaller fronds with long and large segments, giving you plenty of shade too.
This is a tree fern to place in the very center of your garden, as the focal point of a perspective, in the middle of a loan, because its otherworldly beauty needs to have a setting that exhales it to its full potential. It has, of course, won the Award of Garden Merit of the Royal Horticultural Society.
And, as a final bonus… This plant grows very fast, many feet every year in fact.
So, if you need a palm like fern that will turn your garden into an exotic spectacle and fast, you know which fern to choose…
19. Southern Maidehair Fern (Adiantum calillus-veneris)
The Latin name of the southern maidenhair fern means “hair of Venus”, because it’s fronds, with lobes divided into three, frilled leaflets, of a light green color, hanging on the dark blue stems is a spectacle to behold.
They will arch and grow their clusters of green between rocks, in pots, and even in borders and flower beds, but, being small in size, you can also bring them to eye level with hanging baskets, growing them on trunks and between the bricks of a wall.
20. Hard Fern (Blecchum spicant)
This Fern has a unique shape of fronds, with many oblong segments that grow perfectly perpendicular to the stem. The whole frond looks tongue shaped as a whole, and it seems like it’s been cut into thing strips by an experienced tailor…
They grow from a central rosette my starting upright and then arching slightly at the top, to form a sphere of rich and shiny green foliage.
It is a cold hardy plant that will look great in containers, beds, borders, understand roses and shrubs, and this fern too has won the Award of Garden Merit of the Royal Horticultural Society.
The World of Ferns
I don’t know why, but I’ve always been fascinated by underbrush plants; it’s like they hold the secret of the world of gnomes, fairies and trolls…
But when it comes to ferns, you can go two ways… On the one hand, you have the green path that leads you to temperate forests rich in green fronds that hide mushrooms and board small rivulets and streams.
On the other, you have the glaring exotic look that we associate with prehistoric forests and animals, with explorers and with long lost civilizations…
One thing is for sure though, if you thought that ferns were boring before reading this article, you now know that there are ferns of all sizes, from a few inches to tree tall species; there are firms of different colors, with different frond shapes, and even some with furry “feet” like rabbits.
So, I hope I have convinced you that there’s nothing boring about ferns and maybe edged you on a bit to bring the world of firms into your garden, onto your patio or, if you have neither, onto your bookshelf.
Amber Noyes was born and raised in a suburban California town, San Mateo. She holds a master’s degree in horticulture from the University of California as well as a BS in Biology from the University of San Francisco. With experience working on an organic farm, water conservation research, farmers’ markets, and plant nursery, she understands what makes plants thrive and how we can better understand the connection between microclimate and plant health. When she’s not on the land, Amber loves informing people of new ideas/things related to gardening, especially organic gardening, houseplants, and growing plants in a small space.