Abstract Aim The study explores fern species richness patterns along a central Himalayan elevational gradient (100–4800 m a.s.l.) and evaluates factors influencing the spatial increase and decrease of fern richness. Location The Himalayas stretch from west to east by 20°, i.e. 75–95° east, and Nepal is located from 80 to 88° east in this range. Methods We used published data of the distribution of ferns and fern allies to interpolate species elevational ranges. Defining species presence between upper and lower elevation limit is the basis for richness estimates. The richness pattern was regressed against the total number of rainy days, and gradients that are linearly related to elevation, such as length of the growing season, potential evapotranspiration (PET, energy), and a moisture index (MI = PET/mean annual rainfall). The regressions were performed by generalized linear models. Results A unimodal relationship between species richness and elevation was observed, with maximum species richness at 2000 m. Fern richness has a unimodal response along the energy gradients, and a linear response with moisture gradients. Main conclusions The study confirms the importance of moisture on fern distributions as the peak coincides spatially with climatic factors that enhance moisture levels; the maximum number of rainy days and the cloud zone. Energy-related variables probably control species richness directly at higher elevations but at the lower end the effect is more probably related to moisture.