How to Care for a 35 Year Old Fern

by | May 4, 2021 | 9 comments

When I married in 1985, I inherited a family heirloom- a fern. My mom gave me a piece of her fern she received at her bridal shower in 1957. It was a gift from my great-grandma, Alice Gustafson Eldred. How do you take care of an heirloom fern?

After all these years, she has fern care down to a tee and has given countless pieces of it away to friends and family. I’m not sure how many are still out there, but ours are going strong.

This was not the case a few years ago. I’m not sure how long ago I divided the fern or even moved it to another container. I do know it had been at least 13 years, as I’ve lived in this house that long and have never touched it. Below is the before picture. I knew I needed to up my fern care game to keep this alive.

My fern in 2011 before re-potting it
Before re-potting in January of 2011

Decisions to be made

It was so overgrown and unhealthy I was concerned that it would die if I didn’t do something soon. It took a long time for me to get up the courage to repot it. I finally did knowing Mom had her fern I could get a piece of. There are no “during surgery” pictures but I wish I had taken some.

Repotting the Fern

Using a large serrated knife, I cut it into many pieces. The roots only filled 1/2 of the container and the top 1/2 were brown dead stems and frond pieces. I didn’t know how it was even alive at this point as there wasn’t much salvageable fern left. All of the green, living parts of the fern were growing on top of old, brown growth. I took slices of the root ball and buried all the brown parts with some roots attached. I transplanted it into a green ceramic pot and below is the “after-surgery” picture.

fern repotting
This is the fern after surgery in May 2011

It almost died

It looked sad, more of the fronds died after this picture, and I was sure I had killed it. I started thinking that returning it to such a large pot might not have been such a good idea. I watered it sparingly and used Superthrive in the water with some Jack’s Classic 20-20-20 mixed in for good measure. There were a couple of prayers thrown in, as well.

I was pleasantly surprised when new fronds started appearing. It did great and here is a picture below in September of 2011. (Apologies for the bad quality of the pictures)

Here it is 4 months later on 9-9-11

Interesting fronds

As you can see, the interesting thing about this fern is the fact that it has fronds with regular Boston fern leaflets and also ones with very finely cut leaflets. Quite often, they are on the same frond. It’s very unusual and I’m not sure of the cultivar name.

It is a beautiful fern and I’m so glad to have something that has been in our family for so long. The picture below is circa 2012 and it is still doing great today.

Boston Fern
Here it is in January of 2012

2015

The picture below was taken in May of 2015. It is still going strong, but I think this spring, I will re-pot it again and give it some fresh potting medium.

Boston fern
The fern in May of 2015

How can it be so old?

Many people wonder how I have kept a fern alive for almost 36 years and now I have mom’s fern too, which is 64 years old. First, these ferns are inside and always have been.

Care

When plants live outside for the summer, they pout when brought inside. Boston ferns are one of the plants that are unhappy when brought in. They drop leaflets like it’s their job and it usually doesn’t end well. That isn’t to say that I don’t lose leaflets and sometimes whole fronds. I do, but am willing to put up with the messiness because these plants are heirlooms.

I keep the dead fronds clipped and ensure they are moist all the time (they have dried out a time or two…). They receive fertilizer a few times in the summer and both are doing great. I gave my daughter a piece of my mom’s at her bridal shower in 2018, to keep the heirloom going.

Boston fern
Here is my Mom’s 1957 fern in August of 2020

Do you have an heirloom plant? Tell me about it in the comments.

Have a great week, plant friends!

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9 Comments

  1. Anne Olson

    Lisa,

    I am thinking of you this Mother’s Day and send condolences to you on the death of your mother this last year. How special that your fern was passed down to you through your mom and now on to your daughter as well! Wow!

    This post struck a responsive chord in me as I am very connected to my own mother (who died in 2004) through the many plants she passed onto me over the years. It all started when she gave me some wandering Jew cuttings for my very first apartment.

    Now, 50 years later, I have a whole house full of plants almost all of which have a story attached. These include an angel wing begonia given to my mother in the 1940s, a lipstick plant that belonged to my mother-in-law, and—on a different note—a beefsteak begonia passed on from a co-worker who didn’t want it anymore because it belonged to his ex-girlfriend!

    Ironically, my own fern is one of the few plants I have ever purchased! I know it is over 45 years old as I already had it when I met my husband. And yes, it has been divided and repotted several times!

    Thank you for brightening my Wednesdays with your emails!

    Anne O

    Reply
    • Lisa Steinkopf

      Thank you so much Anne! I appreciate you reading my posts. I love plants that have a story attached. Many of the young indoor gardeners that have just started collecting plants are hopefully the next generation to keep our family plants going. I know my daughters love plants. Have a great week! Lisa

      Reply
  2. Yoli B

    Aloha,
    I inherited a Boston fern to protect outdoors from 2020 frost, which survived and may require repotting. I would like to know what type of soil you used to repot your indoor fern?
    Mahalo, y

    Reply
    • Lisa Steinkopf

      Hi Yoli,
      I mix my own soil, but if you use a commercial potting mix, I would add some perlite and vermiculite. Ferns like to be moist, so some extra peat moss would be good, as well.
      Lisa

      Reply
  3. Susanne

    Hello Lisa, My mother also had an heirloom fern which had been her Grandmothers but sadly when my mom had to be hospitalized the fern was lost. She was extremely sad to see that it didn’t survive but now I am hoping to find an heirloom variety that I can give her and perhaps one day my daughters can take it and say it was their grandmothers fern. What I am wondering is if you have a list of known heirloom fern varieties. I know the first was not a boston fern, it was far more delicate. Do you have any suggestions?

    Reply
    • Lisa Steinkopf

      Hi Susanne,
      I don’t know what my variety is, but is a type of Boston fern. I would look online and see if you could find a grower that has heirloom varieties. Hope you have luck. Let me know if you find any to buy.
      Lisa

      Reply
  4. Jean

    Hello Lisa,

    I have a Boston Fern that is nearly 40 years old. It has been very happy where it is with fronds that are over 4 feet long. Unfortunately, it is mostly dead in the middle of the pot and the only healthy areas are growing in a cluster over the side of the pot. What do I do with them to save this beautiful, loved plant?

    Many thanks!
    Jean

    Reply
    • Lisa Steinkopf

      Hi Jean,
      I should do a blog post about this. The plant does die out in the middle and the fronds keep moving up, if you will so they are only alive on the ends. When you repot it, you can bury those long dead parts so that the plant is back in contact with the soil. Does that make sense?
      Lisa

      Reply
      • jean

        Thank you, Lisa, for this suggestion. I’ll have to wrangle some folks to help me move this monstrous plant. I feel encouraged about this! Jean

        Reply

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