Lemon Button Fern | Plant Care Guide

lemon button fern

The lemon button fern, Nephrolepis cordifolia ‘Duffii’, is a type of Boston fern that is quickly growing in popularity as a houseplant. These small ferns are both affordable and easy to care for, making them the perfect addition to any plant collection. They get their name due to the delicate citrus scent that they can give off during the growing season.

Botanical NameNephrolepis cordifolia ‘Duffii’
Common NameLemon Button Fern, Fishbone Fern
Size1 foot high
DifficultyEasy
Pet FriendlyYes. Non-toxic
Air CleanerYes

Lemon Button Fern Origin

Lemon button ferns are a type of Southern sword fern that are native to subtropical and tropical regions of Asia and northern Australia. They are found mainly in wooded areas where they receive filtered light through the tree canopy. Their small size differentiates them from related ferns; they only grow to be approximately one foot in height. 

How to Care for Lemon Button Fern

Light and Temperature

The optimal lighting for your lemon button fern is indirect light. This closely mimics the filtered light the fern would receive in its native habitat. However, many lemon button fern owners have reported that their plant does well in almost any lighting scenario including everything from low light to bright, direct light. 

Warmer temperatures are preferential for this tropical fern. Try to maintain a temperature above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. More important than the temperature though is the humidity level around your lemon button fern.

When it comes to humidity, more is better for this compact fern. Make sure your plant is kept away from fireplaces and heat vents to prevent the air from becoming too dry during winter. You can maintain a higher humidity level through a number of methods, such as running a humidifier or housing your plant over a pebble tray.

To create a pebble tray for your lemon button fern, add pebbles or rocks to the saucer under your pot. Fill the saucer with water to just below the height of the pebbles. Place your pot on top of the pebbles. The water will not be able to touch the soil and roots so it will not cause root rot, but as the water slowly evaporates, it will increase the ambient humidity for the plant. 

Another option for keeping your humidity-loving fern happy is to place it in a bathroom or kitchen, where the humidity is naturally higher due to the frequent running water. Terrariums are also a great option to allow your lemon button fern to thrive.

Water

A lemon button fern will easily adapt to the watering schedule of your more particular plants. It needs a moderate amount of water but is fine with a little more or a little less. Being a tropical plant, it tends to enjoy more water but it will not do well with soggy soil and wet roots. Some owners still have success when allowing their fern to dry out between waterings. 

Your fern will also enjoy regular misting. Ferns can absorb a small amount of water through their leaves (although it is much less efficient than absorbing watering through the roots.) More importantly, misting will help increase the humidity around the plant. 

Since they do well in wetter conditions, lemon button ferns don’t necessarily require a pot with a drainage hole. To keep your roots from sitting in water, just add some rocks to the bottom of the pot before adding soil and your fern. This will allow the water to settle below the roots. If your pot does not have a drainage hole, you must be mindful not to add too much water at each watering. 

Fertilization

Lemon button ferns are slow growers that can easily be over-fertilized. During the growing season (spring and summer), use a fertilizer at half strength every one to three months. Each plant will grow at a different rate, so use the best judgement for what your fern needs. 

Pruning

Pruning is essential to maintain a beautiful and healthy fern of any species. For lemon button ferns, older fronds will die off in the late fall and winter. You can trim them off immediately or wait until early spring, just before the growing season. Removing old fronds will free up space and nutrients for new fronds to uncoil from the crown. 

Repotting

You will most likely need to repot your lemon button fern every 2-3 years based on growth and pot size. The best time to repot is in spring, so your plant has the growing season to re-establish the root system. With their easy-going nature, your fern can be repotted into almost any container, including hanging baskets.

When it is time to repot, choose a pot one size up from your fern’s current pot to prevent shocking the plant’s system with too much new space. Loosen up the roots to help with the transition. Lemon button ferns enjoy a peat-based soil.

A tip to remember when you repot any plant is that new soil holds water better than old soil. Usually, you will not need to water as frequently as you were before repotting your plant. Some owners have lost ferns due to accidental overwatering after moving their fern to a new pot. 

Pests

Lemon button ferns can be affected by any of the common houseplant pests, especially because they enjoy higher humidity and soil moisture just like pests do. Most of these pests can be treated with insecticidal soap or neem oil treatments. 

Mealybugs

Mealybugs look like white cotton puffs and they are usually found around new growth and the base of leaves. They feed by sucking the juices out of the plant. A couple of mealybugs will not  be that damaging to a plant. However, they can reproduce rapidly and take over a plant.

Once a fern has a mealybug infection, it can be hard to treat because of all the nooks and crannies for the pests to hide in. Start by giving your lemon button fern a strong shower to get off as many mealybugs as possible. Alcohol on a cotton swab can then be used to kill remaining individuals. The entire plant should then be treated with neem oil or insecticidal soap for multiple treatments to kill off all remaining eggs and adults. 

Scale

Scale is a sap-sucking insect like a mealybug, but it does not move around the plant. Once it has found a location on the plant to feed, it will remain in the same location for the rest of its life. 

To treat scale, begin by removing all affected fronds. The rest of the treatment is the same as treating for mealybugs – a strong shower, alcohol, and repeated insecticidal soap or neem oil treatments. 

Whiteflies 

Whiteflies are small, winged insects that congregate on the underside of leaves and suck sap from a plant. They produce a “honeydew” substance that attracts ants and also encourages black sooty mold to form.

Sticky traps near the infected fern can help capture adults. Shower off as many whiteflies as possible then treat with neem oil or insecticidal soap. Since whiteflies can be hard to exterminate, it may be necessary to use a stronger pesticide when treating your lemon button fern. 

Diseases

Root Rot

Root rot is an infection caused by a fungus that thrives in wet conditions. The most common causes are overwatering and soil that doesn’t drain well. A lemon button fern with root rot will have gray or yellow leaves, stunted growth, and rotten, brown roots. Treat your plant with a fungicide and replace as much soil as possible.

Blight

Blight is another fungal infection that affects the leaves of the fern. Brown, irregular spots on leaves are the first sign of blight. The fungus can even be seen webbing between fronds in advanced infections. To treat your lemon button fern for blight, use a fungicide and replace the contaminated soil.

Nematodes

Nematodes eat away at the roots of the fern until the plant cannot survive any longer. The initial signs are gray leaves and fronds dying off. Infected plants should be disposed of to prevent the nematodes from spreading to other plants. To help prevent nematodes in future plants, use a pasteurized potting soil. 

How to Propagate Lemon Button Fern

There are two methods for propagating lemon button fern. Splitting the fern is the significantly easier method, but collecting spores from your fern is a unique technique to experiment with. 

Splitting

The easiest way to propagate a lemon button fern is to split apart the mother plant. Ferns have rhizomes, underground horizontal stems, that can be separated to create new individual plants. This is easy to do when repotting. 

Spores

A plant enthusiast might like to try their hand at spore collection and propagating. However, it is a long process that can take up to a year to produce any results.

Ferns do not reproduce like most other plants. Instead of flowering, being pollinated, and then producing a seed, ferns have spores on the underside of their leaves that mature and then are spread using the wind. 

To collect spores, you will first need to determine when the spores are mature. The sori, the spots on the underside of the leaves that contain the spores, will darken and become plump when the spores are mature and ready to be collected. Take a frond and place it on a piece of paper. The spores will be released and you will be able to see them on the paper.

Debris from the plant will be mixed with the spores, so you must separate the spores by gently tapping the paper and dividing the small, dense spores from the lighter debris. A magnifying glass with 20x magnification is recommended for this tedious task. 

When you are ready to propagate, prepare a sterile growing medium in a container with a clear lid. Sprinkle your lemon button fern spores on top of the soil and cover with the lid. Maintain high humidity and warm temperatures (55 to 75 degrees). In six to twelve months, young ferns, called sporophytes, should be developed. Transition them to a normal level of humidity and then they can be transplanted. 

Frequently Asked Questions

One of the reasons lemon button ferns make an excellent houseplant for everyone is because they are non-toxic. Humans (especially curious children) and pets will be safe. Lemon button ferns are even used in exotic animal terrariums. 

Spring is the best time to repot your lemon button fern so the roots can re-establish themselves during the growing season. Removing older fronds that are dead or dying will also open up space for new fronds to emerge.

Over-fertilization

If the tips of the leaves are turning brown and starting to falling off, your plant might be over-fertilized. Lemon button ferns are slow growers that do better with just a small amount of nutrients in the soil during the growing season. Prune off dead ends and stop fertilizing as frequently. If your plant is still having trouble bouncing back, repot with new soil and rinse off the roots during the transfer. 

Inadequate humidity

Dry air will cause the leaves on your lemon button fern to dry up, turn brown, and eventually fall off. You can cut off the brown tips with sterile shears because they will not grow back. To prevent further browning, increase the humidity around your fern by misting, running a humidifier, or using a pebble saucer.

The initial sign that your lemon button fern is being overwatered is yellow and/or wilted leaves. Decrease the frequency of your watering and only water when the top two inches of soil are dry to the touch. Your pot should either have a drainage hole or have rocks underneath the soil to prevent the roots from sitting in water. 

While the individual frond will not grow back if cut, new growth will emerge from the crown of the lemon button fern when old growth is trimmed. Removing older and dying frond allows the space and nutrients to be used for new growth. New fronds uncoil from the center of the plant and then slowly grow out. 

Final Thoughts on Lemon Button Fern

All in all, the lemon button fern is an excellent plant for a beginner or expert plant enthusiast. This attractive plant will look good and add some personality to any home. 

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