Tiger fern: the purr-fect houseplant

Tiger fern is the perfect houseplant to create a jungle atmosphere.

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    Nephrolepsis exaltata 'Tiger Fern' is a Boston-type fern whose green leaves are marbled and streaked with a variegation that resembles a tiger's stripes.
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If you like Boston fern, you’re bound to be smitten with the ‘Tiger’!

The incredibly beautiful Tiger Fern (Nephrolepsis exaltata ‘Tiger Fern’) is a Boston-type fern, whose green leaves are marbled and streaked with a variegation that resembles a tiger’s stripes.

Showing no definitive pattern, each frond exhibits random markings in colors which vary from dark green to lime green to golden yellow. Intermixed between the striped foliage, a few fronds add richness to the plant as luminous blondes.

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Tiger Fern' is a natural mutation of the Boston fern (N. exaltata ‘Bostoniensis’). It was discovered in Bogor, Indonesia, in the spring of 2000. Not surprisingly, this remarkable mutation was chosen as the best new foliage plant when it made its debut at the Tropical Plant Industry Expo held in Florida.

One of the more unusual aspects of the Nephrolepsis variety of ferns is their ability to mutate, always providing gardeners with “new” varieties – such as the ‘Tiger Fern’.

Ferns have been around for a long, long time. They were well established before the age of the dinosaur, with the Boston fern a descendant of one of the oldest known plants on Earth.

Once,extremely popular as houseplants in the Victorian days, ferns are making a comeback. With their frilly appearance, trailing older fronds, and slowly unwinding new ones, these plants bring a delightful feeling to any home.

Tiger Fern’, like most Boston ferns, is well suited to hanging baskets where the long, arching fronds hang gracefully downward, though it’s also becoming nestled in a tall, elegant wicker basket, eminently displayed on a simple pedestal, or even potted up in an ornate vase.

Despite good results growing most houseplants, as a beginning gardener I had only marginal success with ferns indoors, even though in my woodland garden they multiplied like rabbits. Every few years I would acquire a new, healthy, robust Boston fern – only to watch half the fronds shrivel and dry before its first birthday.

So, what changed?

Divine intervention, I think. One winter’s day, in an effort to hide the rather sad-looking plant from that evening’s dinner guests, I stuck my lopsided Boston fern in a bright, sunny room with a humidifier. Afterward, not wanting to track more dry leaves from room to room, I left it there to end its days in sunny comfort. So you can imagine my surprise, when, from that day on, my success with indoor ferns forever changed.

Why?

Well, while most hardy ferns thrive in shady areas outdoors, tropical ferns grow best indoors in a lot of indirect sunlight. Although a Boston fern may survive, not enough light will prevent it from growing vigorously.

With some practice, I found that during the short days of winter, I could successfully grow Boston fern close to a sunny window with no ill effects. But as the days lengthened and sunlight became more intense, my plants needed the aid of sheer curtains – or a bit of distance -- to keep their foliage from burning.

I also found that Boston fern, like most houseplants, needs consistency. For ferns to prosper indoors, they also need to be kept evenly moist. But evenly moist didn’t mean that the soil should remain constantly soggy – or subjected to extremes.

Here’s what I finally learned.

■ Don’t just dribble a little water on top of the plant from time to time. Give your ‘Tiger Fern’, as well as all other Boston ferns, a good thorough soaking. Water until excess water begins to drip through the container’s drain holes, pouring out whatever remains in the tray or saucer after a few minutes. Then let the soil become slightly dry before the next watering. Remember, more ferns are killed by too much water, than by too little.

■ If water runs straight through the container each and every time you water, it is either time for a good soak or time to repot. The new container should be about one and a half times the size of the existing pot.

■ Ferns love humidity. If you are going to fail with a Boston fern, probably this will be the area that will do you in. You have a few options here. The easiest way to provide humidity is is to grow the plant in your bathroom. – if you have a good light source and enough space. Other options include a room with a humidifier, placing a bowl of water on the heating vent or radiator, and – though not always effective – hand misting. Better to rely on room humidifiers or to concentrate on proper watering schedules that eliminate moisture stress.

■ When kept indoors, your ‘Tiger Fern’ will need good air circulation, so don’t grow it close to walls or other plants. And although they look absolutely smashing in hanging baskets, it’s best to keep them on pedestals or in tall containers, for the temperatures near the ceiling are generally warmer and the air drier than at midheight.

■ Typically, Boston fern does not need much fertilization. A diluted fertilizer applied once a month during the plant’s active growing period is plenty. That is, when you see lots of new fronds unfurling, provide a little food.

Spring may have had a slight setback, but you know it’s coming. Spring garden shows are popping up around the country to kick off the upcoming gardening season, and I urge you to attend a few. You might find a treasure, like my ‘Tiger Fern’, which I picked up in Indiana a few years back.

Betty Earl is one of nine garden writers who blog regularly at Diggin' It. She's the author of “In Search of Great Plants: The Insider’s Guide to the Best Plants in the Midwest.” She also writes a regular column for Chicagoland Gardening Magazine and The Kankakee Journal and numerous articles for Small Gardens Magazine, American Nurseryman, Nature’s Garden, and Midwest Living Magazine, as well as other national magazines. She is a garden scout for Better Homes and Gardens and a regional representative for The Garden Conservancy.

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