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What is a Boston Fern?

By Mike Howells
Updated May 16, 2024
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The Boston fern is a particular type of sword fern plant that originated in parts of the tropics, but is now common and popular throughout the world as a low-maintenance houseplant. It has long, arcing leaves, which, on ferns, are known as fronds, and is prized for its hardiness and tolerance to drought. The Boston fern is commonly confused with a much less beneficial species known as the tuberous sword fern, which can take over growing spaces in a weed-like fashion.

The specific variety known as the Boston fern was discovered in 1894 amongst other sword fern plants bound from Boston, Massachusetts to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is so named for its presumed city of origin. Though the original plant was the result of a random mutation, its beneficial characteristics were recognized by botanists and the Boston fern was propagated and specifically cultivated as a distinct plant.

Whereas the scientific name for the sword fern is Nephrolepis exaltata, the Boston fern is Nephrolepis exaltata cv. Bostoniensis. The 'cv' stands for cultivar, and is used to denote its status as a purposely cultivated offshoot. Though propagated through human intervention, the Boston fern has since spread on its own as well. It grows natively in the wild, in areas of Florida and the Caribbean, as well as some islands in the Pacific.

The Boston fern prefers humid climates, as evidenced by the areas of the world where it has thrived naturally. Being a hardy plant, however, it may be successful in drier conditions, given proper care. When potted and kept indoors it is often necessary to spray the plant with water at regular intervals to mist its fronds, helping to simulate more humid conditions.

Though they can survive even some moderate frosts, these ferns prefer and grow best in temperate climates. In addition to relative warmth and humidity, these plants need quite a lot of light, whether grown indoors or out. While they will not die if located in shady or even dark places, they will struggle to grow.

A Boston fern should be watered periodically so that the soil around it stays moist, and damp to the touch. If water is pooling on top of the soil, it is being over-watered, and its roots may begin to rot. Likewise, if the soil is dusty, it is too dry. In addition to water, a general type of houseplant food, generally available at any nursery or garden center, should be added monthly in every season except winter.

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