When we moved to a new house a couple years ago we inherited a very large staghorn fern with the property. At first I had no idea what this weird looking plant was hanging from a tree in my yard, but a quick search lead me to the answer. A staghorn fern.
Staghorn ferns (Platycerium spp.) are truly unique plants. They are epiphytic plants. An epiphytic plant is a type of plant that grows on the surface of other objects, typically trees or rocks, but it is not a parasite. Instead of taking nutrients from the host plant or object, epiphytic plants gather moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, and organic matter that accumulates around them. They use their host primarily as a physical support structure.
The staghorn fern gets its name from the unique shape of the fronds which look like an antler or a stag’s horns. These distinctive ferns are favored by indoor and outdoor gardeners alike for their striking resemblance to majestic stag horns. Over a couple years of care, and a lot of research, I felt it was the right time to share some of my experiences in this comprehensive post so you can learn something new about a very cool plant that might be something to add to your garden.
Staghorn ferns are native to tropical and subtropical regions, and their climate requirements reflect this. For those of you in parts of the country that regularly see freezing weather staghorn ferns are really only an indoor option for you, though you can bring it outdoors in the warmer months.
- Hardiness Zones: Depending on the species, staghorn ferns are typically hardy in USDA zones 9-12. In cooler climates, they can be grown indoors or in a greenhouse.
- Outdoor Growth: When grown outdoors, they flourish in areas with warm, humid summers and mild winters. In regions with colder winters, bring them indoors or provide protection during the colder months.
General Care Requirements
Staghorn ferns, though visually exotic, are relatively low-maintenance when their basic needs are met. That’s my kind of plant! Here’s what you need to know:
- Light: Staghorn ferns thrive in bright, indirect light. Place them near a window with filtered sunlight or in a spot with dappled shade if grown outdoors. Avoid exposing them to direct sunlight, which can scorch their delicate fronds especially if they aren’t accustomed to it.
- Watering: Watering requirements can vary depending on factors like humidity and temperature. In general, keep the fern’s root ball consistently moist, but not waterlogged. Water thoroughly when the top inch of the potting medium feels dry, and mist the fronds occasionally to increase humidity.
- Temperature: Staghorn ferns prefer temperatures between 60°F to 80°F (15°C to 27°C) just like me. Protect them from freezing temperatures, as they are sensitive to cold, just like my wife.
- Humidity: These ferns thrive in humid environments. If you live in a dry climate, consider using a humidity tray, room humidifier, or regular misting to maintain adequate moisture levels. This may be one of the few advantages to living in the humid south.
- Fertilization: Feed your staghorn fern with a balanced, water-soluble fertilizer diluted to half strength during the growing season (spring and summer). Reduce or eliminate fertilization during the dormant winter months.
Ideal Growing Conditions
To ensure your staghorn ferns thrive, consider the following ideal growing conditions:
- Growing Medium: Use a well-draining, orchid mix or a combination of sphagnum moss and perlite for potting or mounting staghorn ferns.
- Container: If growing in a pot, choose one with drainage holes to prevent waterlogged roots. These ferns can easily succumb to rot if they don’t have a chance to dry out between watering. Mounting on a wooden board or tree is another popular option we’ll discuss below.
- Pot Size: Select a pot that allows for some room to grow, but avoid an overly large container, as staghorn ferns prefer to be slightly root-bound.
- Mounting: Staghorn ferns can be mounted on boards, plaques, or even tree trunks. Secure them with sphagnum moss, fishing line, or plant wire, making sure to provide a stable foundation.
Propagating staghorn ferns is possible which is great because that means you can easily bum a piece of a fern off a friend or neighbor and start your own. Here are two common methods:
- Division: Divide mature plants by carefully separating offsets or pups that develop around the base of the fern. Ensure each pup has some roots attached and pot it in its own well-drained container.
- Spore Propagation: This method is more advanced and involves collecting spores from mature fronds, sowing them on a sterile medium, and nurturing them until they grow into young ferns. Basically, don’t try this route unless your full time job involves horticulture.
Troubleshooting Diseases and Pests
While staghorn ferns are relatively disease-resistant, they can still fall prey to pests like aphids, mealybugs, and scale insects. Regularly inspect your plants for signs of infestations and treat them promptly with insecticidal soap or neem oil if necessary.
Overwatering is a common issue that can lead to root rot. Ensure your staghorn fern’s growing medium is well-draining, and avoid allowing the plant to sit in standing water. Other than that this is a relatively easy plant to grow and enjoy!
Best Practices for Mounting Staghorn Ferns
Since staghorn ferns don’t like being water-logged, mounting them is a great option that allows them to keep their feet dry and also be mobile to move around your garden if you see fit. Here are some best practices for mounting to a board:
- Selecting a Mounting Board: Choose a sturdy, rot-resistant wooden board or plaque. Redwood, cedar, or cypress are excellent options.
- Preparing the Fern: Remove any dead or damaged fronds and gently clean the shield fronds (the flat, shield-like structures at the base of the fern).
- Attaching the Fern: Position the staghorn fern on the board, securing it with sphagnum moss and plant wire. Ensure the fern is firmly attached while allowing room for growth.
- Hanging or Displaying: Hang the mounted fern in a location with filtered light, or display it as a centerpiece on a wall. Water it by thoroughly soaking the moss and allowing it to drain.
You can also mount them directly to a tree following the steps below. This is one of my favorite techniques because the ferns can really take off and grow quickly if you find the right location for them.
- Create a Mounting Pod: Wrap some wet sphagnum moss around a separated pup so it will provide the moisture needed.
- Wrap in Bird Netting: Wrap the moss and pup into some bird netting to hold everything together and tie off the top with some string.
- Attach with Fishing Line: Using fishing line secure the finished pod onto the tree trunk in a shady location.
- Remove the Line: Over a few months the staghorn fern will grow roots onto the tree trunk to attach itself. Once it is secure you can remove the fishing line and it will continue to grow.
The staghorn fern is such a unique plant that I would definitely consider adding to your garden or home if you’ve got the right conditions. Whether you choose to grow them in pots or mount them on wooden boards, or you mount them on a tree following the guidelines here will help you enjoy the relatively low-maintenance and beauty of staghorn ferns.
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I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.