Ferns are known for their wild-looking fronds, which bring a forest-like feel to the comfort of the home. Their dense, bushy growth is complemented by the delicate edges of each individual leaf.
Ferns are especially striking when their fronds are healthy and grow thickly and close together. However, because their thick, light green growth makes ferns so special, it is also noticeable when they begin to drop leaves.
That said, leaf drop is usually easily fixed by identifying the cause of the problem and resuming proper care.
Why is my fern losing leaves?
Ferns lose leaves if they do not get enough water or light, or are kept in an environment without enough humidity. They will also suffer if they are overfertilized, over-watered or receive too much direct sunlight. That said, it is natural for both deciduous and evergreen ferns to lose old leaves.
Too much or too little light
Ferns that receive too much direct sunlight will develop leaf burn and will subsequently fall off. Ferns usually grow in the undergrowth of forests and are protected from the sun’s brightest rays by the canopy.
As a result, they prefer bright, indirect light.
On the other hand, too little light can also cause leaf drop. Ferns that do not get enough light will attempt to reach the light by growing upwards, and will become “leggy”, meaning that they grow long fronds with sparsely spaced leaves.
If they continue to receive an insufficient amount of light, they will begin to drop their leaves.
Ferns are happiest if they get approximately six hours of bright, indirect light per day. If possible, place them a few meters away from the window in a room with southern exposure.
Over or underwatering
Most ferns are tropical plants and are used to regular, heavy rainfall.
That said, Ferns that get too much water will turn yellow. If your fern is losing leaves after they turn yellow, it is likely being overwatered.
If you have been overwatering your fern, try reducing the amount of water you give it. Aim to keep the soil moist, but refrain from letting the fern sit in water or waterlogged soil. Overwatering is a cause of ferns turning yellow, and can lead to root rot.
If your fern is being underwatered, it will begin to wilt and will subsequently lose its leaves.
Boston ferns are particularly susceptible to underwatering and frequently drop leaves if left to dry out too much. While they are a beautiful fern, they are notoriously one of the absolute hardest houseplants to grow and take care of, so be sure to read up on how best to care for them!
Both overwatering and underwatering cause wilting and eventually lead to leaf drop, so make sure you correctly identify which you have been doing before taking steps to resolve the problem.
If the soil is dry and the fronds are wilting, you should increase the amount of water you are giving your fern. If the soil is wet and there is any yellowing on the leaves, you should reduce your watering.
Exceptions to the rule about keeping ferns’ soil consistently moist include holly ferns, rabbit’s foot ferns and brake ferns, all of which like their soil to dry out a bit between waterings. Tropical ferns like the crispy wave fern, on the other hand, love humidity!
If your fern has been seriously damaged by over or underwatering, you will need to read up on how to revive a dying fern.
Too little humidity
In addition to protecting ferns from direct rays of sun, the canopy of the forests that are ferns’ natural environment also serve to trap in moisture. Most ferns grow naturally in areas with around 70 percent humidity.
Ferns that live in an environment without enough humidity will wilt. If your fern’s leaves are dropping after wilting and the soil is dry, consider making a humidity tray for it.
To make a humidity tray, you need to fill a drip tray or bowl with stones or clay pebbles. Fill it with water to just below the top of the pebbles and place the fern on top of it.
Ensure that the fern is not soaking up the water from the drip tray by placing another drip tray between them. As the water evaporates, it will increase the humidity levels around the plant.
Alternatively, you can move your fern to a more humid environment, like a bathroom with a shower in it.
You can also increase the humidity around your fern by using a mister to mist its fronds a couple times per week. Use lukewarm water to mist ferns, as cold water can cause leaf-spotting.
While it can be helpful to fertilize nutrient-deficient ferns that have been growing in the same soil for a long time, adding fertilizer to a healthy fern can be bad for it. Ferns that are fed too much magnesium and sulfur will burn, and this will lead to leaf loss.
If you notice signs of nutrient burn—bending and browning at the leaf tips, dark green coloration and/or dry, curling leaves—then hold off on fertilizing your fern for a while and see whether it recovers naturally.
Frequently asked questions about ferns losing leaves
How do I know whether my fern’s leaf drop is natural?
It is natural for deciduous ferns to lose leaves in the autumn and for evergreen ferns to lose leaves at the end of the winter. Both grow their leaves back in spring. If your fern loses leaves at other times of year, or if they do not grow back in spring, the leaf drop is not natural and is likely the result of improper care or a badly suited environment.
Should I cut the dead leaves off of my fern before they fall off?
If your fern is a deciduous variety, you should not cut the dead leaves off in the autumn, but should rather allow them to fall off naturally and wait until the beginning of the next growing season before pruning. If your fern is an evergreen variety, you can prune it more regularly, but you should take special care to cut back any dead growth at the end of winter.
Marcel runs the place around here. He has a deep passion for houseplants & gardening and is constantly on the lookout for yet another special plant to add to his arsenal of houseplants, succulents & cacti.
Marcel is also the founder of Iseli International Commerce, a sole proprietorship company that publishes a variety of websites and online magazines.