Why Is My Maidenhair Fern Dying? (And How to Save It)

The maidenhair fern (Adiantum) grows wild throughout the world, from the Adirondack Mountains in New York to Norfolk Island off the coast of Australia to the sandstone cliffs of South Africa.

Maidenhair ferns are relatively easy to grow, but they might get a little testy if their growing conditions aren’t just right.

As long as you do a little research into making your maidenhair fern happy, you shouldn’t have to devote hours of your time to its happiness.

Why Is My Maidenhair Fern Dying?
Photo by Len Worthington, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

How do you save a dying maidenhair fern, and are they worth the trouble?

If you’re facing a drooping maidenhair fern that’s losing its leaves and its will to live, don’t worry. It’s pretty easy to conduct a quick process of elimination to figure out how to save your dying maidenhair fern.

Let’s dive into the common problems maidenhair ferns face and how to bring them back from the brink.

Why is My Maidenhair Fern Dying?

Most people accidentally kill their ferns with too much sunlight. Direct sunlight actually burns the leaves of the maidenhair fern, and the plant slowly dies as its foliage turns brown and it can no longer conduct photosynthesis. Another common mistake is allowing the plant to get too cold with temperatures that sink below 55 degrees, which also causes the leaves to become brown. 

Maidenhair ferns may also start to die if they get too dry, receive inconsistent moisture, or get too much fertilizer. Leaving the plant to become pot-bound may also create a very angry, dying maidenhair fern.

It may seem like the maidenhair fern is quite picky with its growing conditions, which is somewhat true. However, it’s very easy to grow once you refine its placement, watering, and feeding schedule.

Most Common Causes of Dying Maidenhair Ferns

Too Much Sunlight or Direct Sunlight

Sunlight is a key ingredient in the process of photosynthesis, which occurs when plants convert water, oxygen, and light into energy.

However, not all plants need the same amount of sunlight, and the maidenhair fern is particularly averse to sitting in direct sunlight for any part of the day.

If you leave your maidenhair fern in a sunny window for too long or put it outside in direct sunlight, the leaves may burn.

In the wild, maidenhair ferns grow in the shade, often beneath the canopy of trees, and they enjoy the same treatment in your home.

How do you save the fern?

Simply move the fern away from direct sunlight. Maidenhair ferns are an ideal plant for a room that doesn’t receive a lot of sunlight, like a bathroom or a bedroom with a north-facing window.

You don’t have to put the fern in a completely dark room. Simply move it out of direct sunlight to start the recovery process.

Too Cold or Too Hot

Imagine the temperate conditions of the coastal Redwood forests of northern California, where you’ll find happy ferns of all types thriving on the shady forest floor. This is the sort of environment that ferns love: not too cold and not too hot.

Try to keep the temperature around your fern at about 65 to 75 degrees. A shady spot inside that’s not near a drafty door in the winter or near a broilingly hot window in the summer should help you maintain a consistent temperature for the plant.

Remember that you may need to move your fern throughout the year to maintain the right temperature, as well as the right amount of sunlight. If your fern gets too hot or too cold, the leaves may start to turn brown, as if it was left out in the sun.

Not Enough Humidity

One piece of oft-relayed wisdom regarding ferns is that they love water and enjoy a healthy misting every few days. Regular misting is a good idea, but not as a replacement for traditional watering or a naturally humid environment.

If you live in a dry area like the desert or an arid mountainous region, your fern may suffer from a lack of humidity. The maidenhair fern loves a moist environment.

Take a look at one of the weather apps on your phone or computer and take note of the humidity. Is the humidity below 30?

If you’re a particularly avid indoor horticulturalist, you can go the extra mile for your fern and use a humidifier in your home. Regularly misting the plant helps, too.

Inconsistent Watering and Moisture

Some plants enjoy a good soaking and then spend a few weeks drying out until their next date with the watering can. Not so for maidenhair ferns.

These ferns don’t like drying out, but they don’t like sitting in a pool of water, either. They’re ferns, not bamboo.

If you find the leaves are starting to fall off or shrivel on your fern despite your best efforts to place it in a spot with indirect light and the right temperature, the problem could rest with your watering schedule rather than its ambient environment.

The best rule of thumb for watering your maidenhair fern is to make sure you don’t allow the soil to dry out completely. You don’t need to drench it every day, but just make sure the soil never reaches a point where it starts to crack like the dry sand of the desert.

Too Much Food

Maidenhair ferns want to keep their trim figure and don’t want too much to eat. If you overfeed your maidenhair fern with too much fertilizer, it may start to drop its leaves in protest, or it may turn brown.

You don’t actually have to give your maidenhair fern much fertilizer. Monthly feeding with some liquid fertilizer is appropriate in the warm months, but you can usually stop feeding in the winter.

Set a reminder on your phone or computer to keep track of your fern feedings so you don’t struggle to remember when and if you fed your plants.

Big Plant Small Pot

Maidenhair plants don’t like getting squished inside their pots and grow best when given a larger pot every few years. The fern should never completely fill its pot, and you’ll know when your fern needs a new home when its roots begin to grow out of the drainage holes.

You may also see roots start to grow out of the surface of the soil because the plant has too many roots in a small pot.

Fortunately, repotting a maidenhair fern is a breeze, and you can even separate the plants growing in one pot and place them in two pots if you’re not keen on a larger plant.

The best time to repot or divide your fern is in the late winter or early spring before it enters its growing season. A potting soil made of half peat moss is appropriate, and you may mix a tablespoon of ground limestone into every gallon of soil you use.