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Foxtail Fern: The Pros and Cons of Planting This Variety of Fern

My grandpa loved gardening. I learned much from him. To this day I enjoy puttering around in our garden, growing plants for beauty and food.

Foxtail fern thrives in dappled shade.

Foxtail fern thrives in dappled shade.

Foxtail fern is a beautiful plant that is hardy, evergreen, and perennial, making for a budget-friendly plant. Not only that, but it also spreads if its red berries find a patch of ground in which to sprout and grow.

Birds love the berries, too, so whether you purposely propagate foxtail ferns or just let nature take its course, you are likely to end up with more of these ferns once you plant one or more in your garden.

Beautiful in landscaping.

Beautiful in landscaping.

Foxtail Fern Origin and Sun Tolerance

Foxtail ferns are soft to the touch and are related to the asparagus family of plants. This variety of greenery comes from South Africa. In our Houston area, it grows well in full sun and also tolerates some shade. I have planted them in both situations with success in the past.

"Foxtail" is an appropriate name given how those spiky stems with attached foliage simulate a fox's tail.

Several years ago, I purchased some at a nursery towards the end of the summer when the plant was on sale: 70% off. Mixed into our garden, I thought they were striking specimen plants.

Sun or Shade: Which Is Better?

Although this plant is very hardy and will tolerate a wide range, from full sun to shade, it thrives best in a lightly shaded area. It's best to plant it in a place that isn't exposed to the hottest afternoon sun, especially in particularly hot climates. Ideally, this plant would get light, dappled sun.

Note: The plant will look and behave differently in different light conditions. In the sun, it will grow tall and compact, but in shadier conditions, it grows lower, sparser, and more "leggy."

Foxtail ferns planted near rose bush in our backyard: This was a mistake.

Foxtail ferns planted near rose bush in our backyard: This was a mistake.

Foxtail Ferns May Choke Out Nearby Plants

After I planted foxtail ferns, suddenly the nearby rose bushes began to struggle. One particular rose bush—called Mother's Rose, given to me by a friend after my mother died—didn't survive. It is a shame that I lost that particular rose bush. It had been hardy and was visible from several windows in our home. It reminded me of the special friendship and love of my mother that my friend also shared.

What I found after digging out the dead rose bush had me consequently digging out our foxtail ferns. After my rose died, I pulled all the foxtails out and gave them away.

How Foxtail Ferns Spread Underground

The foxtail fern forms tubers the size of a man's thumb and, underground, they spread out far from the plant. The tuber derives nutrition from the soil, but it chokes out the surrounding plants. Its spread can be invasive: Just be forewarned about this fact if you wish to use these ferns in your yards and gardens.

When I gave my ferns away, I advised them about planting them in a stark location (like against the foundation) and not planting the foxtails near other plants unless those plants were deeply rooted (like trees)— but nowhere near shallow-rooted plantings.

They would make an excellent specimen plant for container gardening. If kept in a container, these ferns will need replanting every few years because of those tubers filling the soil area.

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Will They Thrive in Cold Climates?

These are cold-hardy plants and rarely freeze in our area. If we have an unusually cold winter they might freeze, but they quickly rebound in the spring. Just cut off any dead foliage above ground.

The older fronds shed their leaves and become stick-like in appearance. Remove them by snapping or cutting them off to keep the plant looking tidy and beautiful.

The older fronds shed their leaves and become stick-like in appearance. Remove them by snapping or cutting them off to keep the plant looking tidy and beautiful.

Foxtail Fern Characteristics and Growing Information

These perennial, light green-colored, evergreen plants thrive in planting zones 9–11 in the United States. Its official scientific name is Asparagus densiflorus 'Myersii'. As one might accurately guess from the title, it comes from the asparagus family, the Asparagaceae's official name.

Water and Soil

The tubers below ground store water, so once the plants are established, they are drought-tolerant. Well-draining soil is ideal. Water about once a week once the earth has had a chance to dry out at the top 3 inches. If grown in hard, compacted soil and receiving too much water, root rot can occur.

Berries and Flowers

In the spring, those foxtail-like fronds with the soft, needle-like leaves bear tiny white flowers that turn into red berries later in the year. Butterflies and bees like the flowers and birds consume the ornamental berries. I have read that the berries can be poisonous to cats and dogs, but we have personally never had a problem with that.

Propagation

Propagation of the foxtail fern happens in two ways. One can plant the berries containing seeds directly into the ground. A much faster way is to take an existing plant, cut it with a sharp shovel or knife, bisect the fronds and tuberous taproots, and divide it that way.

Pruning

As you can see from the photo above, the older fronds often shed their leaves and become stick-like in appearance. Remove them by snapping them off or cutting them to keep the plant looking tidy and beautiful. Occasionally, when temperatures have gotten into the 20s, and if left unprotected, the fronds can be harmed. Generally, they rebound with new growth from the ground.

Inside or Out

In northern climates, they can be kept as houseplants if given enough bright light and humidity.

Pests

Our foxtail ferns never had any pests. I have read that occasionally they can be harmed by scale insects or mealybugs.

Foxtail Fern Size and Spacing

I would use them in landscaping again if I could start from scratch with a new garden knowing what I learned the hard way. A foxtail fern needs to have plenty of space, as they can get up to 1.5 to 2 feet in height and spread about 3 feet or so.

Source

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Peggy Woods

Comments are welcomed.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on September 17, 2020:

Hi Devika,

The foxtail fern is a beauty, but it is best to know about how the underground tubers can spread and choke out nearby plants. Thanks for your visit.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on September 17, 2020:

Peggy I didn't know of the Foxfern until I read your hub. I like it and just like ferns. Interesting and informative about a different green plant. I learned to plant the Foxfern away from other plants too.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on August 29, 2020:

Hi Denise,

I learned the hard way that foxtail ferns could choke out other plants like roses. Your mother must have discovered that fact sooner than I did. Thanks for your comment. Stay safe!

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on August 28, 2020:

My mom had some years ago and I always wondered why they were suddenly missing from her garden. She had three of the most gorgeous Heart's Desire Roses in that bed and when the foxtail ferns left the roses really thrived. This explains is. Thanks for the info.

Blessings,

Denise

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on August 03, 2020:

Hi Dale,

Thanks for sharing this article with your wife, or anyone else interested in growing the beautiful foxtail fern. Better to be forewarned about possible consequences ahead of time than to learn it firsthand by losing plants around it.

Dale Anderson from The High Seas on August 03, 2020:

Pwggy I have never been a gardener and, living ona boat now, I doubt that I ever will become one. But my wife is trying her hand at growing things so I'll put her on to your articles and hope that it helps her.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on July 12, 2020:

Hi Adrienne,

The old saying "knowledge is power" applies here. I am pleased that you learned something about this beautiful foxtail fern plant.

Adrienne Farricelli on July 11, 2020:

Thanks for sharing this important dark side regarding foxtail ferns. I didn't know until now that these ferns are related to asparagus, interesting!

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on July 06, 2020:

Hi Rajan,

Planting these foxtail ferns in a container or near deep-rooted items such as trees is safe.

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on July 06, 2020:

Never imagined something as beautiful as this fern can be as deadly as this. I believe planting in a container should possibly take care of that. Thanks for sharing.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on July 03, 2020:

Hi C E Clark,

Those tuberous roots can surely cause problems!

I hope you stay safe up there. This virus is gaining ground in so many places. Scary! We are doing our part in wearing masks and avoiding crowds.

C E Clark from North Texas on July 03, 2020:

Sounds like they could cause trouble with the neighbors too, if planted too close to a shared privacy fence and there were other plants on the other side that the neighbors valued. They are very attractive, though.

Reached 102º here yesterday afternoon for a while. :(

Hope all is well with you and that you are staying safe, which is getting harder and harder to do . . .

Posting this on AH & FB.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on September 14, 2018:

Hi Ethel,

The foxtail ferns are really pretty but can choke out other plants because of their bulbous and spreading roots. Happy to inform you and others of that possibility.

Ethel Smith from Kingston-Upon-Hull on September 13, 2018:

I do like the look of them Peggy but thanks for the warning. If I ever plant any it will be in a container away from other plants

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on July 22, 2018:

Hi Patricia,

I am sure your daughter really appreciates all you are doing to help them. Moving is never fun. Hope that your treasured plants make the upcoming journey with you in good stead.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on July 22, 2018:

I am not sure if I told you but the house belongs to my daughter and son in law. They moved to another town several years ago to be closer to where my son in law works so I moved here to help them out. I am not thrilled about moving and have been packed almost entirely for several months. My plants were one of my first considerations as I have many I treasure. I had to dig them up and pot them and began that several months ago. Thankfully they are doing well and are ready for the move. NOW to just get on with it. Closing is set tentatively for August 15 so I am hoping there are no unexpected delays. Once again sending you hugs and blessings this morning ps

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on July 21, 2018:

Hi Patricia,

Happy to be able to pass information like this along to others so that they know better where to plant these beautiful foxtail ferns. I could have ordered another rose bush to take the place of the one that was killed but did not do so. The memory of it and the person who sent it is enough. Hope that your move will be smooth and the reasons why you are doing it good reasons. Take care!

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on July 21, 2018:

I just reread this and commented via my phone...not seeing it yet...I had forgotten what you said about it being invasive so am glad I saw this again. I am getting closer to moving so am looking at them more seriously now. Most of my plants are in pots now as I had to remove them from the ground to prepare for the transition. Angels once again headed your way ps

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on July 21, 2018:

Thank you for this...I have always admired them but will relegate any I get to a container. So sorry you lost your special rose. Angels are in the way, Peggy

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on November 30, 2017:

Hi Patricia,

Nice that you have your foxtail ferns in pots and can move them with you when your house sells. They are beautiful but need to be planted where they cannot harm other plants.

Saying some extra prayers for Heston Wayne.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on November 30, 2017:

Thank you for this information. I did not know this. I do not presently have any growing in my yard but have had them in pots. Whenever the house sells and I move I do plan to have some again. Knowing this information will help me as I select where to plant them.

Angels are once again on the way Peggy....need a few special ones for little man as his surgery caused some shaky moments last night. ps

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on November 23, 2017:

Hi Roberta,

Had I known about the underground tubers and how they can choke out other nearby plants (those without deep roots) I would never have planted the foxtail ferns near that prized rose. Live and learn!

RTalloni on November 21, 2017:

I'm laughing at how often I've ignored friends warnings re invasive plants. This, however, is worse than invasive and I'll heed your warning. Moving towards container gardening any way. :)

Robert Sacchi on November 09, 2017:

That is amazing a plant that lasted a century. Dolores, your family seems to be blesse with green thumbs.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on November 09, 2017:

Hi Dolores,

Were I to grow the foxtail ferns again I would definitely keep them in pots.

That is something that you have a mint plant that has been kept in your family for over 100 years! Amazing!

The rock with the 2 holes is one in which Native Americans would have sharpened tools. My parents acquired it many decades ago and it has been kept in the family. I like it also.

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on November 09, 2017:

Hi Peggy - I am sorry that you lost a special rose. I have many plants that came from other people including a mint that has been grown in my family for over 100 years. I'd hate to see it go. Maybe the best place for a fox tail fern would be in a container. They sure are pretty. (I love that white rock with the 2 holes)

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on October 19, 2017:

Hello lovetherain,

Yes, the foxtail fern is certainly pretty. Just be aware of those tuberous roots that can affect nearby plants.

Christine Coulsen from Untited States on October 18, 2017:

Interesting and beautiful plant.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on May 04, 2017:

Hi Audrey,

The foxtail fern truly is lovely if planted in the right area so as not to crowd out other plants. Happy to know that you enjoyed learning about it.

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on May 03, 2017: