Staghorn Fern

A Few Facts About The Staghorn Fern


The staghorn fern, of which there are several species, is a member of the Polypodiaceae family and the genus Platycerium. The staghorn fern is also known as the elk horn fern, and at times is referred to as the Elephant ears plant. A tropical plant, the staghorn fern is notable as a plant which has two very different types of leaves, or fronds, on the same plant. One type is the foliar leaf. It is this leaf type that gives the staghorn fern its name, as it resembles the antlers of a deer, elk, and caribou. The other type, which grows lower on the plant, is the basal leaf. The basal leaf is very broad, is not segmented, and is the reason the staghorn fern is sometimes called Elephant ears.


Like many tropical plants, the staghorn fern will not be found out of doors in the United States except in places like Florida. Also, like many tropical plants, this fern has become very popular as a house plant. As such, it can be grown in virtually any location. The foliar leaf type, often referred to as the fertile frond, is primarily responsible for providing the plant with nutrients, and is where the spores form. The upright foliar fronds collect water and debris such as pieces of dead or decayed leaves. The debris is broken down into nourishment for the plant. The basal leaves, or elephant ears, are sterile. They perform an important function however, as they will wrap themselves around the growing surface to provide support for the plant.


A Quick Look At Several Species


A brief look at the various species gives a good idea as to which type of staghorn fern might be a good candidate for either growing outdoors or as a potted plant.


The easiest species to grow is Platycerium bifurcatum. This species, although not known to be particularly frost tolerant, will survive temperatures as low as 25ºF for short periods of time. This species is by far the most commonly available.


Two other species that are easy to grow are Platycerium alcicorne and Platycerium hillii. They are not quite as hardy, being unable to withstand temperatures below 40ºF.


Species that can be very difficult to grow are Platycerium superbum and Platycerium wandae, native to Australia and New Guinea, respectively. Both of these species are very easy to over-water. Platycerium wandae, the largest of the Platycerium species, does best at temperatures of around 85ºF and will not do well below 60ºF.


Staghorn Fern Care


Aside from the species that are easily over-watered, the preferred approach to watering a staghorn fern is to give it an occasional drenching, a little like simulating a tropical rainstorm, and then let the plant dry. These ferns like a relatively humid environment, and prefer bright light, especially when grown indoors. While they prefer bright light outdoors as well, staghorns should not be planted in direct sunlight. In the wild, these plants grow on trees and rocks, but always in a place where there is leaf canopy above them. They will tolerate some morning sun, but will not tolerate hot sun light. Although often grown as a houseplant, these ferns do not always make good container or potted plants.


The usual means of growing these plants is to attach some starting medium, normally sphagnum moss, to a hardwood board or plank, using a wire basket that will hold both the starting medium and the plant, or use nursery tape, or even nylon fishing line, to hold everything to the plank. As the plant grows, it will cover whatever has been used for a supporting structure. Obviously, the plant needs to be in a location where nothing will be water damaged when watering the fern. In tropical or semi-tropical areas, these plants are often seen growing on chains hanging from the branches of trees.


The fact that these ferns are usually grown on boards or planks puts them in the category of plants known as air plants. Often growing on trees or rocks in their native surroundings, these plants do indeed get most of their nourishment from the air, in the form of water and debris. An occasional feeding of a little fish fertilizer, or a fertilizer containing some potassium is good for the plant. Other than that, and the occasional watering, the plant is quite easy to care for. The staghorn fern is not related to the orchid family, but shares many of the same growing characteristics.


Baby Ferns


Most, but not all staghorn fern species produce pups, or baby ferns.  Platycerium bifurcatum, the most popular species does. These pups can be cut off with a knife if it is desired to start new plants. The new plants, which must have a sterile frond surrounding a fertile frond in the center of the plant, can then be mounted on a board in the same manner the parent plant was.


A Precautionary Note


Staghorn ferns are not meant to be touched or handled, as touching the leaves tends to remove the protective coating the leaves have. Obviously, a plant will be touched or handled from time to time out of necessity. Just don’t make a habit of doing so and all will be well.