How to Identify Fern House Plants


Even without showy flowers, ferns make lovely additions to your home or office. These plants are some of the oldest on Earth. Rather than flowers and seeds, ferns reproduce by spores, which are found on the underside of fern leaves or fronds. Spores and fronds provide the best means to identify fern houseplants. Though many native ferns such as ostrich have ornamental uses, some ferns available as houseplants may include exotic species. A horticultural guide will provide the best assistance. Bear in mind that some species can be difficult to identify. Identification to the genus level and not the exact species may be the best you can do.

Things You'll Need

  • Plant guide
  • Magnifying glass (optional)


  • Observe the general height of the fern. Is it less than 1 foot tall? Is it over 3 feet tall? Height can be an identifying trait with some houseplants.

  • Look at the arrangement of fronds on the fern. Is there only one type of frond present or are there two distinct types? Some ferns have separate reproductive structures on fertile fronds.

  • Observe the shape of the fertile fronds. They may be very different from the sterile fronds or look similar. The fertile frond may have spores on the underside of leaves or sometimes a bundle at the top of a stalk.

  • If different frond types are observed, determine if the fertile frond branches off from the sterile frond or has if its own distinct offshoot from the root.

  • If only one type of frond is present, examine the underside for the presence of brown specks called sori, which contain fern spores. Note the shape and location on the leaf margin of the sori.

  • Notice the overall size of a single sterile frond. Is the width more than 4 inches or does it appear to be longer than wide?

  • Note the detail of a single sterile frond. A frond may be a single blade, or it may consist of smaller divisions called pinnae. These pinnae will resemble tiny leaves. A fern with pinnae is referred to as pinnate.

  • Study the pinnae, if present. Are they on stems? Are they lobed? The presence of stems can also be an identifying trait.

  • Notice the shape of the pinnae. Are they rounded or are they tipped?

  • Study the arrangement of the pinnae. Do they overlap along the blade or are they distinctly separate? Use a magnifying glass if this is not easily observed.

  • If the frond has pinnae, examine the frond more carefully to see if subdivisions of the pinnae are present. These subdivisions of the pinnae are called pinnules. Such a fern is called twice pinnate.

Tips & Warnings

  • Not all plants called ferns are actually ferns. The asparagus fern is actually a member of the lily family.
  • Be careful around the base of the fern. Fern houseplants do not tolerate disturbance well.

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