8 Plants That Look Like Ferns

Ferns are beautiful plants with a somewhat alien nature. They don’t flower but reproduce with spores, which is one thing that makes ferns interesting. Ferns leaves are commonly known as fronds and consist of long, narrow, divided leaves on a leaf stalk. Some ferns also have broad leaves instead of compound leaves with multiple small leaflets on the stalk.

There are more than 10,000 fern species, most of them originating in the tropics. This means that while ferns are a magnificent addition to any garden, they aren’t the easiest plants to care for. Most ferns have specific requirements regarding their soil type, humidity, and watering times.

Many people admire the beauty of ferns but don’t want to commit to the high maintenance of caring for ferns. Fortunately, several other plants with fern-like leaves can create the same aesthetic of ferns but without maintenance. Some plants that look like ferns but aren’t ferns are:

  • Sweet ferns – easily mistaken for ferns because of their appearance
  • Japanese fern trees – small trees with fern-like leaves
  • Astilbes – shrubs with fern-like leaves and pink flowers
  • Fern pine columnar trees – an evergreen tree with fern-like leaves
  • Fern leaf begonias – fern-like foliage on bright red stems
  • Sumacs – trees or shrubs with fern-like leaves
  • Fern leaf wattle trees – shrub trees with fonds
  • Royal Poinciana trees – large trees with red flowers and fern-like leaves

1. Sweet Fern (Comptonia Peregrina)

Comptonia Peregrina
Megan Hansen Comptonia Peregrina

The sweet fern is so named because of how much it resembles a fern. A sweet fern has the same leaf structure as a fern, with long leaf stems covered by small, rounded leaves. The sweet fern is native to America and prefers well-drained, acidic soil.

Sweet ferns are also shrubs, making them look even more like ferns. While the leaves of sweet ferns aren’t the same shape as those of true ferns, the resemblance is enough to make many people believe they are indeed ferns.

However, one clear difference between a sweet fern and a true fern is that sweet ferns produce flowers to reproduce, while ferns reproduce with spores. Sweet ferns have a deliciously sweet scent when bruised, a quality that a fern doesn’t possess.

2. Astilbes (Saxifrages)

Astilbes are another plant species easily mistaken for ferns. There are many Astilbe varieties, some grow straight up, and others produce a more shrub-like plant. Astilbes have the same color and leaf texture as ferns, and their leaves resemble some broad-leaf fern varieties.

Astilbes don’t reproduce in the same manner as ferns since they create beautifully cone-shaped plumes of bright pink. Astilbes are a great companion plant for ferns, though, and the brightly colored flowers create a striking contrast to the deep green foliage.

Astilbes are also sensitive to the sun, just like ferns. They require high humidity and plenty of shade with indirect sunlight. The Astilbe’s leaves can also burn like a fern if left in the sun.

3. Japanese Fern Tree (Filicium Decipiens)

Filicium decipiens Japanese Fern Tree
Wendy Cutler Filicium decipiens (Japanese Fern Tree)

Although Japanese fern trees are trees instead of shrubs, their leaves resemble ferns so much that they are named after them. The Japanese fern tree is a small, rounded tree with fern-like leaves.

Just like a fern, the Japanese fern tree has a long, narrow, compound leave with many bladelike leaves on each stem. One difference between a Japanese fern tree and a fern is that the Japanese fern tree prefers plenty of sun.

But the Japanese fern tree also thrives in warm, tropical climates like other ferns, requiring plenty of water too. The Japanese fern tree creates small flowers with seeds for reproduction.

4. Fern Pine Columnar Tree (Podocarpus Gracilior)

The fern pine columnar tree is native to Africa and produces long, narrow leaves resembling a fern’s leaves. While the leaves are much larger than those of a fern, they have a fern-like appeal. Fern pine columnar trees’ leaves can grow up to 4” long, making them quite large compared to true ferns.

Fern pine columnar trees are popular worldwide since they are more drought resistant than other fern-like trees. They are also resistant to pests. Just like a fern, the fern pine columnar tree requires warm summers and moderate winters (tropical weather) to flourish.

Fern pine columnar trees require plenty of sunlight, with as many as 8 hours of direct sunlight each day. This makes them different from a fern in several ways. Yet, the leaf structure and appearance remind one of a fern.

5. Fern Leaf Begonia (Begonia Pipinnatifida)

Begonia Pipinnatifida
Forest and Kim Starr Begonia Pipinnatifida

Although a fern leaf begonia is not a true fern, its structure and leaves resemble a fern so much that it has adopted the name. Fern leaf begonias have the same compound leaves as ferns, and the leaves grow on bright red stems.

Despite not being a fern, the fern leaf begonia also prefers warm climates but likes bright environments instead of the shady areas a fern prefers. Fern leaf begonias produce dark green leaves, similar in color and texture to ferns.

Fern leave begonias aren’t extremely common. Still, they will leave a lasting impression and create the same tropical forest feel as ferns.

6. Royal Poinciana Tree (Delonix Regia)

Delonix Regia
Scott Zona Delonix Regia

The royal poinciana tree, also known as the flame tree, is native to Madagascar and has the same fern-like leaves as other trees on this list. The delicate fern-like leaves and smooth, grey bark reminds one of a fern tree.

However, one significant difference between a fern and the royal poinciana is that the latter produces bright red flowers with the same shape as orchids. This gives the tree its other name, the flame tree. When the tree is not in bloom, one can see the fern-like leaves much clearer.

The royal poinciana trees prefer full sun and produce seed pods for reproduction. The climate in Madagascar is similar to the tropical climates where ferns are from, which is likely why the leaves look similar too.

7. Fern-Leaf Wattle Tree (Acacia Filicifolia)

Acacia Filicifolia
Geoff Derrin Acacia Filicifolia

Yet another tree that looks like a fern is the fern-leaf wattle tree. As the name suggests, this tree has fern-like leaves consisting of long, narrow leaf stems covered in small, bladelike compound leaves.

Fern-leaf wattle trees are native to Australia, and when the tree is not in full bloom, you can clearly see why this tree is named after a fern. The small, frilly leaves make a striking contrast to the large groups of yellow flowers that cover the tree during spring.

Fern-leaf wattle trees also prefer full sun and plenty of water. However, they are more drought resistant than ferns. They also like well-draining soil, which is why they grow exceptionally well in coastal areas.

8. Sumac (Anacardiaceae Rhus)

Sumac
karen_hine Sumac

Finally, if you’re looking for a plant with fern-like features, consider the sumac. There are a few varieties of sumacs, including fragrant sumacs, evergreen sumacs, tobacco sumacs, and prairie flame leaf sumacs. All these varieties have the same leaf structure as a fern.

Related: Are Sumac Trees Poisonous? | 6 Plants That Look Like Poison Sumac

Some sumacs, like the staghorn sumac, have the same furry-textured leaves and stems as ferns. When sumacs aren’t in full bloom, they closely resemble ferns. These shrubs are ideal for a forest-inspired garden. Sumacs prefer full sun or partial shade, while they also like well-drained soil.

Despite having different characteristics from ferns, sumacs resemble ferns quite a lot. If someone wants to create a garden with fern-like plants, they will do well to consider these shrubs. Sumacs do well in most climates and are lower maintenance than most fern species.