The foxtail fern is an easily recognizable, resilient perennial herbaceous plant that is seen growing in many gardens and indoor containers. But this sculptural plant is not as straightforward as many other evergreens or succulents that are commonly seen used as ornamental planting.
From its curious name to its prickly yet stunning stems, the Foxtail Fern is a plant that you will love to grow.
A Fern by Any Other Name
The foxtail fern, surprisingly, is neither a fern nor the color of a fox’s tail. In fact, this unique plant is actually part of the lily family, but it doesn’t outwardly resemble what most gardeners have come to know as a lily. The foxtail comes from seeds and does not produce any spores, so it could not actually be from the fern family.
Instead, its common name, the foxtail fern, originates from the fact that its fine, needle-like leaflets clump together on the stems like a common fern. While there are a few other varieties other than the foxtail, each variety has a tell-tale stem and leafing pattern making them easily distinguishable from the others.
The foxtail fern may also be called an asparagus fern, as this is the scientific genus designation. Occasionally the terms ponytail fern or even asparagus grass are used for this interesting plant.
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Defining Features of the Foxtail
This initially compact evergreen is easy to spot among the other fern-like plants in a garden. Growing to about 3-4 feet across in as many years, this plant will flourish in the right environment. However, an older, strongly rooted foxtail can mature into as large specimen as up to 6-8 feet across but only about 2 feet tall.
The foxtail is unusually symmetrical, growing the signature “tail”-shaped stems in arching plumes out from the center. Pointed at the ends, the long, cylindrical plumes are made up of tightly packed leaves (technically called cladodes on the foxtail) that are a little bit prickly to the touch.
In spring and summer, the foxtail blooms its signature tiny, white flowers attracting bees and other insects to them. The blooms then give way to first green and then a brilliant red berry in the late summer and fall.
Like many sturdy plants, the foxtail is known for being invasive. Easy to grow in the right conditions, the foxtail fern has no trouble sending out its tuberous roots to shoot up a baby plant nearby.
Where Foxtail Ferns Like to Live
A robust plant, the foxtail is at home in a lightly shaded area. It loves bright light, but not too much direct sunlight in a hot climate as its stems and leaves will burn and turn a yellowish shade. Oddly enough, when the foxtail also is exposed to too little light, its color can also fade to a yellow as well.
Make sure that it receives a few hours, at the minimum, of bright, indirect light if it is growing indoors. Watch for discolorations in the bright green foliage to assess whether the foxtail is living in an acceptable location.
This durable plant does need a well-draining soil to be happy. However, it is not overly picky otherwise and does not need a special mix of potting or garden soil to be content if the soil does not stay moist.
Wet, soggy soil creates the largest problem for the foxtail, as root rot can set in if the plant is allowed to sit in soil that holds on to water. While not a succulent, this variety of plant is fairly drought resistant, so soil that is too damp can be a problem for the foxtail fern.
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Planting the Foxtail Fern
Using this plant in your landscaping as well as in a container indoors is simple when a few easy rules are followed to keep your foxtail comfortable in its home. It is just at home in a container inside your house as well as being a decorative asset to your landscaping.
This fascinating plant is a very popular house plant that is just as comfortable in a container as it is in the ground. If you decide to keep your foxtail in a container, make sure you follow a few simple guidelines.
First, pot the plant into soil that will drain well through the container. Using a combination of peat moss and a sandy mixture in your container will ensure that your foxtail’s soil continues to drain well.
Next, make sure that the pot is large enough for a little growth. The foxtail fern may not grow a huge amount in the first year or so, but once it settles in you will see that it will thrive with correct care and start to grow vigorously.
Watch out for tubers becoming visible near the surface of the plant that lives in a container. When they float up to the top, it is time to repot the foxtail into a larger container. Or it is also a prime time to divide out some of the foxtail to create new plants, giving growing room for the primary plant in its pot.
With their ability to grow easily in scrubby, rocky areas, the foxtail is a popular landscape accent plant. With its sculptural conical stems and evergreen color, this plant acts as an excellent border and is also used in arid or xeriscape-style landscape plans. If allowed to grow to their full heights, they can be used as an artful backdrop to smaller plants as well, or even placed as decorative cascading plants in wall landscapes.
When using this warm weather loving plant in landscaping, it will flourish and grow in temperatures around 65-75F. If the outdoor temperatures fall below 65F, foxtails may die back with prolonged exposure. However, their strong root system will keep them alive until about 24F, but they may die back in the cold weather until the next season.
How Much Water Does my Foxtail Fern Need?
The great news is that foxtail ferns are not overly picky when it comes to watering. Whether it is in a container or in the ground, the foxtail needs a good soaking when the soil dries out to the touch. This ornamental plant hails from South Africa and appears naturally in scrubby or rocky areas inland or near the coast, so water is geographically spare for the native growers.
For containers, water your plant every few days. Check to see that the soil is dry down about 2 or 3 inches, and then give it a good soaking. Check to make sure no sitting water remains in the container. If the sides of the container show cracked, dry earth, you may have gone too long between waterings.
Foxtails that are planted in containers may need a regular spritz of water nearby to keep the ambient humidity high where the potted plant is kept. Most homes do not have a high enough humidity level to keep the tropical foxtail comfortable.
If your foxtail is part of your landscape, it will only need a good soaking when the topsoil is visibly dry. Since this plant stores its water in the tuberous root systems, you will treat it like a succulent that is efficient at storing water. Just like its container cousins, don’t over water or let it sit in ground soil that retains a lot of water.
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Pruning plants can often be a chore with the constant concern that taking away too much of the healthy branches or leaves will harm the plant. But the foxtail is not a challenge to prune, making its maintenance in a landscape or inside as a houseplant nearly worry-free.
As foxtail ferns naturally age, some of the stems will brown or darken. These can easily be removed or snipped off with garden shears to improve the look of the plant. If leaves yellow due to overwater or sun exposure, those can also easily be removed. Otherwise, this rare plant needs almost no regular pruning to keep its exceptional appearance.
Make sure that you use gardening gloves or protection on your hands when pruning the foxtail fern. This plant’s tiny leaves are very prickly and are uncomfortable on your hands and arms when you come into contact with the greenery. Additionally, the stem spines also have small thorns, although they are not dangerous but can be uncomfortable when touched.
Can the Foxtail be Propagated?
The asparagus fern was made for propagation. Since this plant is a strong rooting variety, the tubers it produces in the roots store water and multiply with a healthy foxtail. Propagation is simple with a foxtail fern when an established parent plant is used.
To propagate potted plants, remove the plant from the container by loosely grasping the base and brushing away soil. Using a sharp, clean knife, segment the tubers into 2 or 3 pieces depending on size. Place individual tuber sections into prepared, well-draining soil in a new container or in a landscape area and water thoroughly.
For landscaped foxtails, propagation is even easier. Using a spade, gently pull away soil at the base of a well-rooted plant. Slice downward with the spade into the central part of the plant, separating off a section of the above ground greenery that is still attached to the rooted tuber area. Plant the sectioned off foxtail in a prepared soil container or other landscape location.
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Foxtails and Animals
While beautiful, the foxtail fern can be dangerous for some of our furry and feathered friends. The leaves can also be irritating for our skin with constant contact, and the plant will cause abdominal distress if its berries are consumed by humans.
Poisonous for Pets
Dogs and cats should not eat the berries on the foxtail fern. They are toxic to these pets, and so their dropped berries should not be accessible, though most pets won't notice the tiny berries. Additionally, multiple exposures to the leaves of the foxtail plant can cause skin discomfort or dermatitis in animals as well.
Birds, Bees, and Berries
Like most brightly colored flowers and berries, birds and bees are attracted to this plant when flowering or laden with berries. The bee attraction is a welcome one for most gardeners, but berry-eating birds can be a nuisance when the leftover seeds are dropped as refuse from the birds, creating unexpected foxtail ferns to sprout in a nearby garden or yard.
Arrangements with Foxtail Ferns
Since the foxtail is so adept at holding on to water, it’s gorgeous stems are often used in floral arrangements. With their gently curved, distinctive shape, they are beautiful additions that hold up for a few weeks when cut stems are placed in water.
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Invasive or Welcome Guest?
With their ability to easily reproduce themselves through tubal spreading and bird re-seeding, the foxtail fern is actually labeled a weed in Hawaii and Florida. Since these locations are perfect incubators for growth, the foxtail is an unwelcome guest for gardeners in these two locations.
For the rest of us, however, we invite the unique foxtail into our gardens as a cherished perennial that adds texture and interest to our landscape.
Foxtail Fern Family
A few related species are similar in look to the foxtail. Grouping these like-minded plants together can create a striking landscape or container collection, and each of them have similar needs for water and sunlight as the foxtail.
The Asparagus Plumosa Fern has a more flattened leaf than the foxtail fern, creating a softer look that is more like a traditional fern. They also produce white flowers similar to the foxtail’s bloom.
Sprenger Ferns, or Emerald Ferns, are an even richer green variety than the foxtail. Growing up to 3 feet in height, each spray of the sprenger is longer, fuller, and softer than that of its foxtail cousin.
The Chinese Ming Fern is also called the pom-pom fern, for clearly visible reasons. Each woody stem is punctuated with a cluster of needle-like leaves or cladodes near the tip. Also named a zig-zag fern, this beautiful plant is a unique variation of the foxtail look.