Staghorn Ferns will add a whole new dimension to the garden

Common Staghorn FernCommon Staghorn FernStaghorn ferns add an eerily beautiful, almost primeval look to both indoor and outdoor spaces. Small plants are often sold growing in pots, but mounting them onto beautiful pieces of driftwood, slabs of bark, wood or cork, is the best method of growing them. Read more below about the various species, and everything you need to know to grow magnificent specimens at home.

Description, History and Interesting Facts about Staghorn Ferns

Staghorn ferns are a group of about 18 species in the genus Platycerium which are native to the moist, tropical rainforests of Australia, Malaysia, Africa, and America, but a few species have adapted to dry habitats, and will tolerate colder weather and more sun. In their places or origin they grow on trees and rocks, and are therefore known as epiphytes.

The genus name Platycerium comes from the Greek “platys” meaning flat, and “ceras” meaning horn; and both common names “staghorn fern” and “elkhorn fern” are referring to the fertile fronds that resemble the forked antlers of male deer or elk. They are often used interchangeably, although those with thinner fronds are most often called elkhorn ferns.

All staghorn species produce both basal and foliar fronds, but the length, width, and amount of division of the fronds varies greatly between species. The fertile green fronds may be erect or drooping, and the shape of the ‘shield’ produced by the brown overlapping basal fronds also varies within the species from rounded to kidney-shaped, and some species have basal fronds that grow upright to form a ‘nest’ to trap falling organic matter. Most species spread continually by producing offsets, but some are solitary, meaning they don’t produce offsets.

Platycerium species

The commonly grown species like Platycerium bifurcatum are easy to find, but many are rarely found in shops and are only offered by specialised nurseries.

The Common Staghorn Fern or Elkhorn Fern (Platycerium bifurcatum)

This species is the one most commonly cultivated as an ornamental plant, as it is probably the easiest to grow. It is a native of Java, New Guinea, and south-eastern Australia in New South Wales, Queensland and on Lord Howe Island. In many countries it is cultivated outdoors and has naturalised itself in places like Florida and Hawaii, where it is now considered an invasive species on the islands.

The common staghorn occurs naturally in and near rainforests, and does best with year-round warm temperatures that never drop below 5°C. Therefore, it can only be grown outdoors in very mild climates, and in all other climates it does best as a houseplant that can be moved outdoors during the summer.

The plant grows from short rhizomes (segmented, subterranean, modified stems arising from a adventitious buds in the crown zone) that produce two types of fronds, sterile, non-productive fronds and fertile green fronds. The sterile brown fronds form the clasping, shield-like structures at the base of the fern, and can grow up to 45cm long. They are flattened against the tree to protect the rhizomes and the tufted roots, and also collect debris that provides nutrients for the plant. Initially these basal fronds are a dull green and succulent, but with age they become brown and papery.

The fertile brighter green fronds grow about 90cm long, and each frond divides into two segments a number of times along its length. Spores are produced on the undersides of the tips of these fronds, and these spore producing areas are a tan-brown colour with the texture of velvety cloth.

Each plant is composed of a mass of plantlets, called suckers or pups, all crammed together with the fronds of neighbouring plantlets overlapping one another. And, as the rhizomes expand out and produce new sterile fronds, the plant will spread continually.

Click here to see Google images of Platycerium bifurcatum

Silver Staghorn Fern, Silver Elkhorn Fern (Platycerium veitchii)

The silver staghorn fern is native to Queensland Australia, and although it grows slowly with time it can reach enormous sizes. With the right care it can live outdoors or indoors for decades, producing its lovely fuzzy, blue-green fertile fronds that hang down up to 2m from the brown shields that can spread up to 1m wide. 

Platycerium veitchii is a very hardy species and although it is easy to grow as Platycerium bifurcatum, perhaps it is less common in cultivation because it is slow growing. Few species tolerate more sun that this one, as in Australia it is adapted to growing on open rock faces in semi-arid climates. It is also known to be cold hardy and will tolerate temperatures down to about -3°C without damage.

Click here to see Google images of Platycerium veitchii

American Staghorn (Platycerium andinum)

This is the only species from the Americas, and the only staghorn fern native to the New World. It can be found growing in the seasonally dry forests found on the Amazonian slopes of the Andes Mountains of Peru and Bolivia.

This species has a tall, slender form, and produces loosely overlapping sterile fronds forming a flaring crown-like shield.  Long, narrowly segmented, lobed and prominently veined fertile fronds hang down up to 1.5m or more. New pups tend to form horizontally, eventually forming a complete circle around the trunk of the host tree. This is called a ‘ring type basket’, and it is estimated that it takes 10 to 20 years for a crown to form like this in the forest.

Click here to see Google images of Platycerium andinum

Crown Staghorn (Platycerium coronarium)

The crown staghorn fern grows primarily in the wet tropical biome of maritime Southeast Asia and Indochina, and throughout the East Indies. It has broad sterile brown fronds, and two kinds of green leaves: Foliage leaves which are broad and upright in habit; and spore bearing leaves which are narrow, pendulous, and dichotomously lobed, forming a long and twisted mass up to 4.6m in length. Coronarium means ‘crown’, describing the shape of the mature mass of green shield fronds that form rings around the entire trunk of the host tree, resembling a crown.

Click here to see Google images of Platycerium coronarium

Giant Staghorn (Platycerium grande)

The giant staghorn is one of the two staghorn ferns native to the Philippines. Along with Platycerium coronarium it is endemic to the island of Mindanao, in the provinces of Zamboanga, Lanao and Davao. It is a solitary species which does not produce pups. The upright fan-shaped sterile fronds form a nest up to 1m or more across; and the large green fertile fronds are unbranched and can hang down up to 1.8m.

Due to over collection and the difficulty of the spores to germinate under natural conditions, in vitro technique is necessary to ensure mass production of this plant species, and the local government has categorized Platycerium grande as a critically endangered species.

Click here to see Google images of Platycerium grande

Staghorn Fern (Platycerium hillii)

Platycerium hillii is native to tropical and temperate areas of South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Guinea. There appears to be two forms of fertile green fronds; one form has long narrow fingers on a broad frond, and the other form has short fingers on a broad frond.  The fronds grow about 60 to 90cm long, and both the sterile shield fronds and the fertile green fronds are broad with wide bifurcations. Platycerium hillii forms and cultivars are very hardy and produce many pups. Cultivars include: Platycerium hillii 'Hula Hands' which has even shorter fingers on a broad frond; Jimmie, Drummond, Pumilum, Panama, Hula Hands, as well as a few unnamed variants. 

This staghorn does not tolerate drought and heat well.  It also has very little tolerance for hot sun, though older plants can take some in the mornings.

Click here to see Google images of Platycerium hillii

Australian Staghorn Fern (Platycerium superbum)

This native of Australia is found naturally in tropical and subtropical lowland rainforests in Queensland and north-east New South Wales. It is widely cultivated as an ornamental plant for gardens, and can also be found in parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and New Guinea. During the 1990’s, the fern was also discovered on the Hawaiian Islands where it is now considered a "problem” species.

Platycerium superbum is a stunning species that can reach truly massive proportions. The sterile fronds grow erect, creating a crown-like umbrella 1m wide, under which the flaring 2m long fertile green fronds hang down in a pendant fashion. It is touchy about cold, heat and overwatering and because it is solitary, it doesn’t produce offsets, and is propagated only from spores.

Click here to see Google images of Platycerium superbum

Platycerium bifurcatum Staghorn Fern San Diego Zoo California Picture courtesy James Gaither from flickrPlatycerium bifurcatum Staghorn Fern San Diego Zoo California Picture courtesy James Gaither from flickr

How to Use Staghorn Ferns in the Garden and Home

Staghorn ferns add an eerily beautiful, almost primeval look to both indoor and outdoor spaces.

In nature staghorn ferns grow as epiphytes by attaching themselves to trees, and in suitable climates, letting them grow directly from a nook or crotch of a living tree branch or trunk, grouped together with other exotic epiphytes like Birds Nest Ferns, and Bromeliads like Billbergia and Aechmea, will add a whole new dimension to the garden. As a final touch, drape Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) over the tree limbs. It develops into large and impressive clumps of very long pendulous strands of fine, silvery-grey foliage, creating a mystical living curtain, and it won’t be long before your garden has that exotic rainforest look and feel.

Members can click here to read more about Birds Nest Ferns

Members can click here to read more about Bromeliads, Tillandsia, Billbergia & Aechmea

Small plants are often sold growing in pots, but mounting staghorn ferns onto beautiful pieces of driftwood, slabs of bark, wood or cork, is the best method of growing them. Mounting not only shows off their distinctive looks best, but also ensures perfect drainage. Staghorn ferns also look fantastic when grown in hanging baskets, and are often sold in Kokedama, a Japanese word that means “moss ball”, which is simply the art of binding plants into green, mossy orbs.  

Is the Staghorn Fern Safe for a Bird Aviary?

Platycerium bifurcatum is recommended as safe for birds and a very good aviary plant. It can be mounted onto wood or a living tree, or planted into a hanging basket.

Indoor & Outdoor Cultivation of Staghorn Ferns:

In their natural environment most staghorn ferns thrive in bright indirect light, warm temperatures, moderate humidity, and consistent moisture, so if you are growing these ferns at home, be it indoors or outdoors, the best results are achieved if you can try to mimic the conditions they love.

How Much Sunlight do Staghorn Ferns Need?

In the garden the best position is in light shade with occasional patches of sunlight. Indoors they thrive in bright indirect light.

What Temperatures do Staghorn Ferns Require Indoors and Outdoors?

Indoors staghorn ferns do best with normal household temperatures of 10 to 16°C or higher.

In warm regions where the temperatures never drop below 5°C, they can be cultivated as ornamental garden plants, and in temperate regions they can be grown in sheltered locations outside. Platycerium bifurcatum and Platycerium veitchii are the most cold-tolerant species, and although the plants will survive light frost and temperatures below freezing for very short spells, in cold locations its best to move them indoors before night time temperatures drop in autumn.

Most Staghorn ferns do not like it hot and dry and arid heat is a challenging factor if humidity is low. You can correct this problem by setting up automatic misters, as most of these ferns will tolerate high heat as long as they are somewhat moist.

What is the Best Growing Medium for Staghorn Ferns?

In nature staghorn ferns grow as epiphytes by attaching themselves to trees; therefore mounting them using sphagnum moss is the best method of growing them, both indoors and outdoors. Mounting also ensures that the drainage is perfect.

Small plants can be grown in pots with a very well-drained growing medium like orchid mix.  

How Much Water do Staghorn Ferns Need?

Water is like lifeblood to these ferns, and they need a fair amount of it, but be careful not to overwater your plants as they don’t do well in a constantly soggy growing medium. And because they absorb water through their fronds as well as their roots, to get them to grow luxuriantly with healthy, shiny leaves, spray the plants regularly with a fine mist spray of water, or rainwater. Mounted specimens will need frequent misting, and if grown indoors, will appreciate an occasional good soaking in a basin of water.

In nature water and debris collects in the crowns of these ferns, but when growing them indoors its best to avoid overwatering directly into the centre of the plant, as too much water in the crown can encourage mould and rot in the dense nest.

In warm summer weather the plants will need more frequent watering than during the winter months. As temperatures decrease in autumn, gradually start to water less, and during the coldest months you may only need to water every couple of weeks. However, if they’re in a room which gets very warm because of heaters etc. be fastidious about checking the soil as it will dry out quicker.

If the quality of your tap water is good you can use it, but as with all houseplants, rainwater is always best.

How Much Humidity do Staghorn Ferns Need?

These tropical rainforest plants need moderate humidity, and if you live in a humid region this will not be a problem. However, in dry regions providing sufficient humidity can be a challenge, both indoors and outdoors.

How to Create a Humid Environment for Staghorn Ferns?

Frequent misting when ambient humidity is low will help a lot, and investing in a humidifier will go a long way in keeping your plant happy.

How to Fertilise Staghorn Ferns?

Plants can be fertilised monthly during the warmer months using a specialist foliar feed for ferns, or any other liquid fertiliser for foliage plants, diluted to half strength. Foliar feeds are easy to apply when misting down your plant.

Is Epsom Salt Good for Feeding Staghorn Ferns?

Many gardeners advocate adding Epsom salt to your fern's water occasionally, as it can aid in the absorption of other nutrients present in the soil.

Are Bananas Good for Feeding Staghorn Ferns?

Banana peels won’t do any harm and can contribute lots of potassium and a little phosphorus to the nutrient needs of your staghorn fern. However they contain very little nitrogen, which is also vital for good growth.

Are Brewed Coffee Grinds Good for Feeding Staghorn Ferns?

Yes, coffee grounds can benefit staghorn ferns, as they provide nitrogen, which helps leaf growth. However, while it may be tempting to directly apply freshly brewed coffee grounds to your staghorn fern, this is not advised as fresh grounds are quite acidic and can potentially throw off the pH balance of your growing medium. It’s best to compost them first to break down and neutralize some of the acidity, and then to use it sparingly.

Are Used Teabags Good for Feeding Staghorn Ferns?

Tea bags are excellent slow release fertilisers that will do no harm if you occasionally place a few behind your staghorn fern.

How to Prune a Staghorn Fern?

Withered fertile fronds can be pruned off, but the brown basal fronds should never be removed as they help anchor and protect the plant and will eventually fall off naturally.

How to Mount a Staghorn Fern?

Staghorn ferns are quite easy to mount onto driftwood, a wooden board, cork or bark, but make sure you use a hard wood or bark that won’t decompose quickly, and you will also need to drill a hole into the mount to fit a hanging bracket.

For mounting you can use sphagnum moss which is available from some garden centres for use in terrariums, as well as from bonsai growers and even some pet stores. Online you can order sheets of living moss which are perfect to use. The fern is secured to the support by fishing line, wire, plastic mesh or other materials.

Take your fern out of its pot and gently shake off the excess soil. Loosely secure the plant to its support so that you still have some space to gently push moistened moss behind the brown basal fronds. Once you are happy with the arrangement, secure the plant permanently to its mount. Always wrap over and through the brown, non-fertile basal fronds. Do not wrap over the soft, green fronds as they are easily damaged.  As new basal fronds are produced and grow over the old fronds, you will no longer see the fastening material. Mist spray thoroughly to ensure the root ball is completely moist, hang and enjoy!

How to Propagate and Divide Large Staghorn Ferns?

If well cared for, a staghorn fern can live many decades, and it may require periodic division or remounting on a larger base to support its increasing weight.

To divide a fern, one must first identify a sucker or pup, and carefully cut it off with a sharp knife or scissors, making sure that each piece has some roots as well as fertile and sterile fronds. These suckers can be found by looking under the brown shield fronds to find the little rhizomes coming off the larger plant. It is best to cut into the fern when the shield frond is brown, with no green or fuzziness left in it. The centre of each rosette of leaves is often called the ‘eye', and large ferns have many eyes. All these can potentially be divided into individual ferns, but the fewer pieces one cuts the fern into the more likely each section will survive. Mount or plant the sucker immediately as described above. New divisions should be kept warm and moist until established, which may take a long time.

How to Propagate Staghorn Ferns from Spores?

Staghorn ferns like Platycerium bifurcatum can be propagated from spores but this is a slow process. Other species may be more challenging to propagate and are better purchased from specialty growers. 

To collect the spores, place the part of a frond that is producing spores into a brown paper bag, and leave until there is brown dust in the bag, these are the spores. Fill a pot with sphagnum moss, palm peat or peat moss, and pour boiling water through the growing medium to sterilize it. Immediately place a glass or plastic sheet over the pot to keep it sterile, and once the growing medium has cooled down, spread the spores evenly over the surface, immediately replacing the cover.

Stand the bottom of the pot in a container with a shallow layer of water, and place the pot and container in a warm position where it will receive indirect sunlight. Once the spores have germinated a green scum will initially appear over the surface of the peat, and after a period of weeks to months, the fronds will begin to appear, and the glass cover can be removed. Once the new plants have grown larger, they can be transferred to their permanent place.

Problems, Pests & Diseases of Staghorn Ferns:

If staghorn ferns are happy where they are growing, and are cared for correctly, they suffer from few pests or diseases. However, as with all plants, they are susceptible to certain insects like spider mites, scale insects and mealybugs. Snails and slugs can also ravage them.

What is the Safest Insecticide to Use on a Staghorn Fern?

To eliminate or prevent insect pests on ferns, lightly spray the plant with insecticidal soap. Insecticidal soaps are effective across a wide range of insect types, but they work best on small, soft-bodied species such as aphids, mealy bugs, greenfly, scale insects, and spider mites. Regular preventative spraying is recommended, as once mealybugs and scale insects mature past their crawler stage and fix themselves to the plant, eliminating them is much harder, and you may have to use products containing ‘carbaryl’.

Can Oil-based Insecticides be used on Staghorn Ferns?

Oil-based sprays are often recommended to control insects like scale on plants, but is not recommended for staghorn ferns as oil-based insecticides can burn or injure ferns.

How to Detect and Control Scale Insects and Mealybugs on Staghorn Ferns?

Mealybugs and scales are the two main pests that can sometimes infest staghorn ferns. Mealybugs appear as white, cottony masses, frequently in the leaf axils or on the lower surfaces of leaves, and even in the roots. They are common on indoor pot plants, and infected plants will show stunted growth, yellowing of the leaves, distorted plant tissue, and leaf drop.

Scales are parasitic insects that adhere to plants and live off the plant's sap, and if populations are severe and left untreated they can eventually kill the plant. Scales have hard armour-like shell coverings in different colours shapes and sizes, and once out of the crawler stage, remain affixed to a portion of the staghorn. Scales often go unnoticed by the gardener, but they can do damage out of all proportion to their size, and are found all year round.

Using an insecticidal soap works to control mealybugs and scale that are in their crawler or moving stage. However, once they have found their permanent place on the fern and stop moving, they are harder to control. Because staghorn ferns do not like oil-based sprays, you may have to use a product containing ‘carbaryl’, like Efekto Karbaspray. Thoroughly cover the infested areas, and always strictly follow the label instructions concerning application and frequency of use.

Members can click here to read more about Mealybugs

Members can click here to read more about Scale Insects

How to Detect and Control Spider Mites on Staghorn Ferns?

Spider mites can wreak havoc on your fern, causing extensive damage to the plant by piercing its cells and sucking out the contents. These tiny arachnids thrive in dry conditions and signs of infestation include yellowing leaves, webbing, and overall decline in the fern’s health. To prevent these pests, it’s important to maintain a humid environment around your fern and regularly mist its leaves. To control or eliminate them, spray regularly with insecticidal soap.

Members can click here to read more about Spider Mites

How to control Snails and Slugs on Staghorn Ferns?

Slugs and snails chew holes in the fronds and leave behind those characteristic slimy trails. A sprinkling of snail pellets on top of the organic matter in the back of the fern will discourage most of these mollusc pests. And, because they are most active at night they can be captured by hand with the help of a torch.

How to Keep Squirrels Out of Staghorn Ferns?

When grown outdoors in the nook of a tree or on tree trunks where squirrels frequent, they might be tempted to burrow and nest around the root system of your staghorn fern. Wild birds may also be inclined to do the same, so try to protect your plants from the damage they can cause by planting them into hanging baskets enclosed in wire mesh that is about 1cm, and if you dislike the look of mesh over the pot, set the wire around the fern's root system before placing it in its hanging basket.

Relocate your staghorn to a tree or post where you can more easily control a squirrels access. A support structure that is too close to other trees, or with branches close to house roofs, sturdy wires or fence posts, makes it all too easy for squirrels to leap onto the structure from above the ground. Hang wind chimes from the bottom of your hanging basket, or from a nearby point on the tree or post housing your fern; the noise helps discourages these skittish pests. An ultrasonic squirrel repellent also works well.

DIY squirrel deterrent recipes can be found online, and many gardeners advocate using a generous amount of ground cinnamon or cinnamon oil, mixed with cayenne extract or peppermint oil, and warm water, which must be applied to affected areas to ward squirrels away. As rain can wash away the scent, it needs to be reapplied regularly to be effective.

The Southern African Tree Squirrel, also known as Smith’s Bush Squirrel, can be found in Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Gauteng, North West and extreme northern Kwazulu-Natal. It is a common species in bushveld and woodland, and is especially plentiful in riverine bush and mopane veld.

The Grey Squirrel from North America is classified as invasive in South Africa, and is especially problematic in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. It is a NEMBA Category 1a in KwaZulu-Natal, and Category 3 elsewhere.

Why are the Fronds of my Staghorn Fern Turning Yellow?

Leaf yellowing is one of the first signs of overwatering. Like many tropical plants, staghorn ferns use chlorophyll in their leaves to convert sunlight into usable energy. Unfortunately, leaf oedema and damage are caused by too much moisture, which breaks down chlorophyll. Excessive soil moisture also rots the roots, preventing the plant from absorbing essential nutrients. Adjust your watering.

What is Leaf Oedema?

Oedema is a disorder of plants caused by the roots taking up more water than the leaves can transpire. This excess water ruptures the cells, particularly on the undersides, and leads to water-soaked patches that turn corky and unsightly. It is common on houseplants, greenhouse plants, and other plants sheltered under plastic.  Conditions preventing effective water loss include periods of cloudy weather with low light intensity, or an increase in relative humidity resulting from cooling air temperatures, and poor ventilation. It has also been associated with the use of oil-based horticultural sprays that interfere with normal water loss.

Oedema shows as small translucent, fluid-filled blisters on the undersides of older leaves, often beginning at the leaf margins.  When observed against the light, oedema lesions will appear lighter in colour than the surrounding leaf tissue.  The blisters may increase in size or merge, burst, and then scar, turning a tan colour and corky in texture.  Some, and eventually all the leaves may shrivel, or roll up before falling off. 

Although oedema is typically not fatal, to help prevent it adjust your watering schedule and water less frequently during cool and cloudy, or humid weather.  Water in the morning so that the soil can drain before nightfall when cooling temperatures can lead to increased relative humidity. Use a growth medium that drains well.  Reduce relative humidity near the leaf surface by increasing plant spacing and air circulation.  Increasing light and air temperatures also helps to increase normal transpiration of the fronds.

Click here to see Google images of Oedema in Plants

How to Detect and Treat Rhizoctonia Fungal Infection on Staghorn Ferns?

Staghorn ferns are susceptible to rhizoctonia, a soil-borne fungus known to cause root rot, stem rot, damping-off, and in some cases a blight of the leaves. On staghorn ferns, the bases of the fronds begin to blacken, and black spots appear on the leaves.  This disease is primarily problematic in wet and warm conditions and can quickly spread throughout the fern, eventually killing it.

Most of the time the problem occurs due to overwatering and keeping the fern too wet. To limit the spread reduce humidity around the plant and withhold water to promote drier conditions. Prune away affected fronds and roots, apply a fungicide like copper soap, strictly following the label instructions on its application and frequency of use.  It may even be necessary to repot or remount your fern, sterilising the pot or mount, and using fresh growing medium. Adjust the watering schedule as needed, and remember, in cooler weather your plant will require less water.

Click here to see Google images of Rhizoctonia on Staghorn Ferns

Why are the Tips of my Staghorn Fern Turning Brown?

If the tips of the fronds begin to brown, you are under watering the plant. Increase the frequency of watering and mist the plants down regularly.

Is Platycerium Toxic?

The Staghorn Fern is considered non-toxic and safe around children and animals.

What are the Health Dangers of Ferns?

All ferns release spores, and if people with compromised immunity, like those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) inhale fern spores they can develop mould infections in the lungs.