What is a Boston Fern: Quick Guide to Care and Benefits

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Boston ferns are an intriguing and delightful plant to include in any indoor garden or outdoor space. Their ferny leaves and arching shape are admired by plant enthusiasts and interior designers alike, and their air-purifying properties make them an excellent choice for improving the air quality in your home or office.

What Is a Boston Fern?

A Boston fern, scientifically known as Nephrolepis exaltata, is a popular fern species native to tropical regions around the world (The Spruce). This fern, also known as sword fern, is often found in humid forests and swamps, and can grow up to seven feet tall in its natural habitat (Southern Living).

In North America, the Boston fern has become a classic houseplant, particularly because it does not require much sunlight and is relatively easy to care for (The Spruce). When grown indoors, Boston ferns typically do not reach the same size as they do in the wild, making them a suitable addition to many home or office spaces.

Origin and History

The Boston fern, scientifically known as Nephrolepis exaltata, belongs to the Lomariopsidaceae family of ferns and is native to the Americas, including North, South, and Central America, as well as the West Indies and Florida [source]. Found primarily in humid forests, these ferns can reach a height of up to 7 feet in their natural habitat [source].

It is a popular choice as a houseplant, especially in colder climates where it can’t survive outdoors. The lush green fronds and the ability to tolerate lower light levels make it an attractive option for indoor spaces [source]. The plant earned its name “Boston fern” in the 19th century after a certain variety of the species, the ‘Bostoniensis’, became popular in the city of Boston as a decorative indoor plant [source].

Appearance and Characteristics

The Boston fern, also known as Nephrolepis exaltata, is a popular houseplant known for its distinct appearance and easy care requirements. This attractive fern features arching fronds adorned with numerous small leaflets.


The leaves of the Boston fern are long, sword-shaped, and green in color. As the fronds mature, they gracefully arch, making the plant ideal for displaying on pedestals or in hanging baskets. Each frond consists of numerous small leaflets that can fall off if allowed to dry out, leaving wiry stems behind (source).


Boston fern roots form nodules, which are small growths capable of storing nutrients for the plant. These nodules play a significant role in the fern’s ability to adapt to various environmental conditions, contributing to its reputation as a dependable and easy-to-care-for houseplant (source).

Growing Conditions

Light Requirements

Boston ferns thrive in bright, indirect light. When grown in too much shade, their fronds may become dull and sparse. Conversely, too much sun can cause the fronds to burn. When growing Boston ferns outdoors, ensure that they are sheltered from direct sunlight to prevent burning (Better Homes & Gardens).

Water Requirements

These ferns come from swamps and rainforests, which means they prefer a consistently moist soil. It’s important not to let the soil dry out completely, but also avoid waterlogged conditions, as this could lead to root rot (BBC Gardeners World Magazine).

Soil Requirements

Boston ferns aren’t particularly picky about their soil, but they do require a well-draining mix that retains some moisture. A suitable potting mix for this plant consists of peat moss, perlite, and sand or a commercial potting mix specifically labeled for ferns.

Temperature and Humidity

Boston ferns thrive in temperatures between 65 and 95°F. They cannot tolerate extreme heat or cold, with temperatures above 95°F or below 35°F potentially causing harm to the plant (The Spruce). As they originate from tropical climates, Boston ferns prefer humidity levels above 80%. Low humidity can lead to dry, brown leaf tips, yellow leaves, and leaf drop (Gardening Know How).

Care and Maintenance

To maintain a healthy Boston fern, it’s essential to focus on its key care requirements: light, humidity, and watering frequency. It’s also necessary to provide proper fertilizing, pruning, and repotting routines. Let’s delve deeper into these specific aspects of care.


Boston ferns benefit from regular fertilization during their active growth period. It’s best to use a balanced, water-soluble fertilizer at half strength, applied every 4-6 weeks throughout the growing season. Avoid over-fertilizing, as this can lead to root burn and foliage damage.


Regular pruning helps maintain the shape and health of your Boston fern. Remove any dead or yellowing fronds at the soil level to encourage new growth and improve air circulation. It’s also a good idea to trim back overly long or damaged fronds to maintain the fern’s overall appearance.


Repotting is necessary when the Boston fern outgrows its container or becomes root-bound. Gently remove the fern from its current pot, shaking off excess soil and carefully detangling the roots. Place the plant in a slightly larger pot filled with fresh, well-draining potting mix, and water thoroughly to settle the soil around the roots.

By following these care guidelines, your Boston fern will thrive and maintain its lush, vibrant appearance. Remember to keep a close eye on its needs, and adjust care routines as necessary for optimal growth and health.

Common Problems and Pests

Pest Issues

Boston ferns can face several pests causing harm and damages to the plant. Common pests include mealybugs, scales, fungus gnats, and caterpillars. These pests often feed on the nutrients of the plant, resulting in wilted and yellow leaves. To manage these pest issues, treatments such as insecticidal soap or horticultural oil might help.

Disease Issues

Apart from pest problems, Boston ferns can also experience various diseases affecting their health. Pythium root rot and Rhizoctonia aerial blight are common diseases afflicting these plants. To prevent diseases like root rot, it’s important not to overwater or let the soil stay soggy, as mentioned by Southern Living.

Another prevalent issue is leaf graying, which might occur due to insufficient watering and drought conditions. Increasing irrigation can help improve the situation and promote healthy growth of the plant.

Uses and Benefits

Indoor Plant

Boston ferns are popular houseplants known to improve the indoor environment and provide an aesthetic appearance. One significant benefit of having a Boston fern indoors is its ability to purify the air. According to NASA’s study, Boston ferns remove toxins like formaldehyde, Xylene, cigarette smoke, and Toluene from the air, enhancing overall air quality. Another advantage of Boston ferns is their humidifying properties, as the plant maintains moisture levels indoors, thus relieving symptoms like sore throats, chapped lips, and irritated sinuses.

Outdoor Plant

When used as an outdoor seasonal foliage plant, Boston ferns bring both aesthetic and functional benefits to the garden. Due to their dense foliage, they serve as a natural noise reducer by absorbing sounds up to 2000 Hz. Moreover, their lush, green appearance adds an attractive touch to various landscaping settings. As outdoor plants, Boston ferns require a balance of sunlight and shade, with cool morning sun being ideal to maintain their health and appearance.

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