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Lemon Button Fern Care Guide (Nephrolepis Cordifolia)

Lemon button fern with exposed soil

Caring for lemon button ferns can be a truly rewarding and fruitful experience. It’s hard to comprehend, judging from its beauty, that it’s considered a beginner plant. Honestly, we think everyone should have a go at rearing this plant at least once in their life. In this article, we’ll give you all the information you need to know to successfully care for a lemon button fern.

We’re going to be sharing all the ins and outs of lemon button fern care so you can experience the joy of it thriving for you. After all, you wouldn’t want to take care of a pet in the wrong way, so why let this happen to your plant friends? So, grab a drink, maybe a little snack and let’s jump right in!

Lemon Button Fern: A Brief Intro to the Plant

The lemon button fern, sometimes called a fishbone fern and known as Nephrolepis cordifolia in Latin, is a Southern sword fern. In other words, it’s a wood fern. Essentially what this means is it lives its best life in woodland areas with ample shade.

It grows to a mere 12 inches (hence the name) but this hardy plant can withstand both sea air and soil with high salt content. Of course, you should always ensure your plants (regardless of the type) live in an area that is as close to perfect as possible to ensure they thrive. Anyway, we’ll get into the specifics a bit later.

We’re about to contradict ourselves slightly here but lemon button ferns can be grown indoors, much like the crispy wave fern — as long as you live in a suitable environment. In fact, they can give your home a spa-like ambience that you just can’t achieve with anything else! Okay, let’s get into the nitty-gritty details now, shall we?

Lemon Button Fern: It’s Light Needs

You will probably be pleased to know that your lemon button fern can tolerate indirect light, low light, medium light, and bright light! It’s one of the most adaptable plant varieties available. Having said this, some high-profile gardeners do not agree. Why is this? Well, as we mentioned earlier, they tend to thrive in woodland areas where shade is abundant. Thus, some plant lovers believe that only indirect light is suitable for these guys.

However, we’re here to tell you that this is not true. To test it, we attempted to grow a lemon button fern in just about every lighting situation you could imagine. Can you guess what happened? Yep, they all thrived. So, any type of light is good for this leafy friend of yours.

Temperature & Humidity For Your Lemon Button Fern

Lemon button ferns prefer warmer temperatures. You should try to aim for somewhere between 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit (15 to 20 degrees Celsius). However, one could argue that the humidity level is much more important to these plants than the specific temperature.

If you have a wood stove, furnace or open fire in your house, your poor little lemon button fern might suffer. Why? These things wick the moisture out of the air, decreasing the humidity as it goes. Luckily, there are two great ways to increase the humidity level around your precious plant. Let’s take a look:

Purchase a Humidifier

The number one way to create the perfect humidity for your lemon button fern is to use a humidifier. It doesn’t need to be placed right next to the plant but, allowing it to run nearby will ensure your plant is happy.

Pebble Trays

Alternatively, you will need to use pebble or gravel trays, or even a saucer.
Set your plant in a tray filled with pebbles or gravel (or a mix of the two). Then, pour water into the tray just below the top of the pebbles. You don’t want your plant to come into contact with the water since the potting mix will draw the water up and your plant will start to rot.
As time goes by, the water in the tray will vanish thanks to evaporation. When this happens, simply refill the trays. It’s that easy!

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Watering Your Lemon Button Fern

We said earlier that these ferns are very adaptable. This is wonderful for you! Why? Well, you don’t need to adhere to a strict watering schedule with these little guys. If you have other plants that do require a stringent water routine, this fern will easily slide into that pattern so you can take care of all your plants in one go.

Whether you water it frequently or let it dry out every so often, your lemon button fern will perform for you. Bear in mind that some plant owners don’t agree with this since they believe all plants need a stringent routine.

Each to their own we suppose! You should, however, mist your plant regularly. Not only does this help with the ad-hoc watering system, but it can also control the humidity level which, as you now know, is important to your fern.

One thing you should consider though, is what type of water you are actually giving it. Many plants do prefer bottled water, as this has the least impurities whilst also having the highest mineral content. But tap water will suffice, as long as it’s not too hard in your area.

How Much Water?
We appreciate that some of you may want to know exactly how much water to pour into your beloved plant. So, since I never want to disappoint you, that’s exactly what you’re going to get! While there are not any specific measurements the water should saturate its root area. A good rule to follow is to water it when the topsoil feels dry (or half a finger’s depth).

Soil For Your Lemon Button Fern

These lovely little beauties can grow in any basic houseplant soil.

However, you may well want to provide the perfect environment for them.

So, in this case, I tend to use this organic one that’s available on Amazon. Trust me, they will love you for it.

Which Pots Do Lemon Button Ferns Prefer?

In all reality, any pot will do! Whether it’s a hanging basket or a fancy stationary pot, your lemon button fern will love it. Of course, you should always make sure it has room to grow otherwise it won’t love life quite so much.

As far as drainage goes, they don’t mind either way. Be careful not to over saturate the roots though (if your pot doesn’t have drainage) since the roots are more likely to rot. A good trick is to put some stones, pebbles or rocks in the bottom so the water can’t pool around the roots.

Sometimes, people like to include these ferns in animal terrariums or vivariums. We’ll get to this specific growing style later on but for now, we’ll just say that tropical animals love them.

Repotting Lemon Button Ferns

Your lemon button fern will definitely tell you when it is ready to be potted on. If the fern is healthy and growing properly, it will be lovely and frondy and appear to be taking over the entire pot. This is when you should repot your leafy friend. For those who aren’t new to repotting plants then you are probably aware of all of this. But it never hurts to have a bit of a refresher, right?

Step One: Pot Size

Firstly, only increase your fern’s pot size by one. You don’t want to give it too much of a space shock — they can become overwhelmed just like us!

Step Two: Loosen

Loosen the outermost roots of the football a tad. You can use a fork if you find this helpful. However, other than this you should make sure to leave them alone.

Step Three: Soil Choice and Placing Into Pot

Remember when we talked about peat-based soil earlier? Well, it’s absolutely essential when you are repotting the plant. If you don’t fancy splashing the cash on this, it’s pretty easy to make your own. All you need to do is mix one part perlite to 4 parts peat and you’re done! Place some of this into the bottom of your larger pot. Then, put the football on top of this and put potting mix onto the sides. Remember to avoid putting any on top of the actual football.

Step Four: Water

Once the above is all finished, water it generously. At this stage, you might need to add some more potting mix if it sunk due to the added water.

Step Five: Continue to Care

We urge you to change your lemon button fern’s watering routine now! Since the pot is bigger and you have added fresh soil, it won’t dry out as quickly meaning watering can be reduced further.

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Pruning Your Lemon Button Fern

Mature lemon button fern leaves die naturally when the autumn and winter rolls around. However, to keep your plant looking neat and tidy, you should always prune the dead leaves. During the spring, when the next set of leaves start to push through, you need to sterilise your shears. To do this, simply wipe them down with rubbing alcohol.

Once you are happy with that, prune the withered leaves. They will be brown so they’re amazingly easy to spot. The only thing to remember is to always cut them at the base (where they meet the plant).
While you’re doing this, you will notice that the base is pretty cramped.

Take Care
Ensure you are taking your time to prune carefully so the green and emerging leaves can remain intact. After the pruning process is over, remember to sterilise your shears’ blades once again.

Propagating Lemon Button Ferns

Since your beautiful leafy baby doesn’t flower, you can’t get them from seeds. However, it does provide you with exciting opportunities to get brand-new plants from them. It could feel like a daunting process but we’re going to walk you through the different methods. Some are more difficult than others but when there’s a will, there’s a way!


Without a doubt, this is the simplest way to get new plants from your lemon button fern.
All you are doing is taking a bigger fern and dividing into multiple smaller ones. As long as you split them into sections with a decent amount of fronds and a good root ball, they’ll thrive for you. The division method you will need to use with your gorgeous lemon button plant baby is called splitting. Let’s look at it in more detail.


Since these types of ferns have a sizeable root ball, you can carefully ease them apart. From one ball you should be able to get two or three smaller ferns that have their own root system, stems and fronds.


This is how ferns (like your lemon button friend) reproduce in the wild. In nature, this method works like a charm because the breeze and passing wildlife can transport the spores to other areas where they’ll effectively plant themselves. However, this doesn’t work in your terrarium since there isn’t any airflow! Don’t worry, you can harvest spores from older lemon button ferns to make new plants. But, it’s quite a challenge. Regardless, we’re going to have a brief look at how to do this if you feel like giving it a go.

Step One: Get The Spores

To get the spores you need to have a boatload of patience and a great eye for detail. Luckily, there are some tools to help you succeed. The main one is a 10x hand lens which can help you decide whether the sori are immature, mature, or over. All ferns have different soral patterns so you’ll need to research the specifics of your lemon button fern before you try to get the spores. Typically, you can stick to the following rules:

Immature sori — pale pink/almost white

Mature spores — darker, turning almost black

When the spores are fully exposed, that’s when natural propagation would happen in the wild, once the spores are ripe enough, the sporangium (the case holding the spore in place) tears thanks to the breaking of the annulus. Then, the annulus pings towards the spore which dislodges it and it flies through the air, away from the plant. If you ever get the chance to see this happening (it’s possible using a 20x lens) you’ll never forget the experience!

Step Two: Collect The Spores

Ferns are actually one of the easiest plans to collect spores from since their dispersal system (we talked about this above) works in your favour. Make sure you have a brand-new sheet of paper with you so the fronds with mature sporangia can be laid spore-side down onto the sheet.

As soon as you are finished collecting, you can fold the paper up into an envelope to keep them safe until you need them. Remember to write down “Lemon Button Fern” and the date you harvested them on the front.

Step Three: Clean The Spores

Cleaning is the key to success here. Soak them (quickly) in a 5% bleach solution. Then, rinse them with running water and shake to flick off most of the droplets and release the spores. You might find that there are still some spores left on the frond so tap it to make certain.

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Unfortunately, they aren’t completely clean yet! Lift up the paper sheet they’re laying on and tap it underneath. Be careful of course! This separates the fluffy stuff (debris) from the spores and makes your life easier when it comes to discarding it.

Cleaning Spores
You don’t have to do this upon collection. You can leave the cleaning process until you’re ready to sow. It’s entirely up to you.

Step Four: Pick The Container and Medium

You can use pretty much any container to nurture your lemon button fern spores, as long as it is completely sterile and sealable. Even Tupperware can be used! As far as medium goes, there are lots of different options — soil, fully rotted compost, sphagnum moss, peat moss, perlite, and more. Commercial producers prefer soilless medium since they’re the easiest to keep sterile.

Ultimately, it’s up to you. Whatever you decide to go for, the easiest way to sterilise it is in a microwave after turning into a sloppy, muddy consistency.

Step Five: Sow The Spores

When it’s time for sowing, you’ll need a lovely and clean place free from any drafts.
To sow the spores, gently tap them from their packet or transfer them to a clean sheet of paper and tap them off that. Always remember to label the container! This way you’ll remember that you’re growing lemon button ferns here.

Step Six: Care For The Spores

As you can probably imagine, you then have to meticulously care for your growing beauties.
You will need to ensure the room they’re in experiences no fluctuations in temperature or light. You’re best off using manufactured light as you can guarantee control of this.

However, if that isn’t an option for you, make sure you keep them away from full sunshine. The indirect sunlight is perfect. Where temperature is concerned, 55 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit (12 to 23 degrees Celsius) should be just fine. But once you’ve picked one, stick with it! They won’t take kindly to extreme changes.

lemon button fern and a terrarium

Growing Lemon Button Ferns in a Terrarium

Ferns are fantastic to grow in terrariums, especially the lemon button fern variety because it’s hardy than others and the smallest Boston fern. While you will need a medium to large size terrarium, you will be pleasantly surprised at how well your leafy pal does in here.

The Best Terrarium Environment

Since these ferns are found growing wildly under tree canopies and in damp earth, terrariums are essentially the perfect place for you to grow your own lemon button. If you can recall back to the temperature section earlier we said how important humidity was.

Well, terrariums are the answer. Closed terrariums are made to hold moisture, warmth, and in turn, creates its own humid biome where your lemon button fern can thrive.

Planting Your Fern in The Terrarium Correctly

Your lemon button fern has a normal root ball system that is (thankfully) very easy to work with. If this isn’t your first rodeo and you’ve planted other plants before then you already know what you’re doing here. But for everyone else, let’s chat.

Although you can just remove the plant from its current pot, insert the rootball into the terrarium and add more soil, there are some extra bits to remember. Your fern has shorter, far more delicate roots than your average terrarium plant. So, you will need to make sure your soil mix has a highly nutritious substrate. Otherwise, the roots won’t be able to find the moisture as efficiently and could die.


Here are some questions I frequently get asked by friends and family around lemon button ferns. Let me know if you have any other issues in the comments and I’ll do my best to help you.

Is The Lemon Button Fern Plant Poisonous?

Nope. Not at all. Humans, cats and dogs can come into contact with your lemon button fern plant and be absolutely fine! This is one of the reasons why people love this hardy, versatile plant — there really aren’t any downsides to caring for one.

Should You Take Off Dead Leaves?

In short, yes. Although probably not as often as you think. As we said earlier, the leaves will naturally die back when autumn and winter roll around. But you should leave it be until spring. Then, the pruning process starts (see above for exactly how to do that).

Should You Fertilise The Lemon Button Fern?

The lemon button fern does grow slower than some so you won’t want to be measuring it all the time. However, if you do fancy giving it a boost, a bit of fertiliser several times a year won’t hurt it.


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