A staghorn fern looks very much like deer or elk antlers, hence their unusual name. Native to Asia and Australia, the plants are part of the Polypodiaceae family—they grow slowly, but end up being quite large and impressive once mature. There are 17 species of Platycerium, but only one, the staghorn fern, is truly common in home cultivation.
Staghorn ferns are considered somewhat difficult to grow, but their uniqueness and wider availability make them increasingly popular among growers looking for something a bit unconventional to add to their houseplant collection. These ferns are epiphytic, which means they grow on other plants or objects for support but are not parasitic. They have two distinct leaf forms—small, flat leaves (known as shield fronds) that cover and protect the root ball structure and take up water and nutrients; and green, pronged antler fronds that emerge from this base and can reach up to 3 feet in length indoors (and larger in the wild).
|Common Name||Staghorn fern, elkhorn fern|
|Botanical Name||Platycerium bifurcatum|
|Mature Size||2–3 ft. tall, 2–3 ft. wide|
|Hardiness Zones||9–12 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Asia, Australia|
Staghorn Fern Care
Staghorn ferns make for tons of eye-catching visual interest, not only because of the beauty of the ferns themselves but also due to the unusual way they're typically grown. Because staghorn ferns are often mounted on wood planks and hung on the wall, they make for a great way to add a bit of green decor to your room or gallery wall scene.
For something so stunning, they're not terribly difficult to cultivate, either. The key to helping your staghorn fern thrive is to mimic its natural, sub-tropical conditions as best as you can. Dapples of sunlight (they're used to growing on the bark of trees beneath a canopy of leaves) and lots of moisture will be two essential ingredients to a happy, healthy staghorn fern.
Staghorn is considered invasive since it naturalizes outdoors in very warm climates. This is a problem in Florida and Hawaii, where you should use care when growing staghorn fern.
Staghorn ferns prefer to be kept in a location that boasts consistent, shaded light. That being said, they can handle more sunlight if given enough water, warmth, and humidity. Just be cautious about allowing any direct rays to hit the fragile fronds, as they can burn easily.
Soil and Mounting
Though young ferns may be started in a moist traditional potting mixture, staghorn ferns should be mounted once they progress toward maturity. Staghorn ferns are epiphytes, growing on the sides of trees or other plants in the wild, and will therefore thrive in similar conditions in your home. To mount, you'll need a starting lump of peat, compost, moss, or other organic matter to act as the base, but beyond that should not need additional soil.
Mounting is done by securing the fern with its bottom embedded in a lump of peat, compost, moss, or another organic material to a wooden board or bark slab, using fishing line or wire. The mounted fern can then be hung from the wall. As new fronds grow, they will gradually hide the fastening material as they grow to cover the old fronds. Over time, the mass can grow large and heavy and may require remounting on a larger slab.
Proper watering is an essential component of a staghorn fern's success. They'll need frequent watering, but the base should be allowed to dry out in between—about once a week in warmer climates or during the summer months, and once every two to three weeks in cooler months. For easy watering, remove your fern and its mounting from the wall (or wherever it's hung) and soak it in a sink filled with water for 10 to 20 minutes, or until the roots are fully saturated. Allow to drip dry before rehanging.
If you notice the fronds have begun to brown or blacken towards the base, it's likely your plant is being overwatered. Likewise, if the tips of the fronds begin to brown or wilt, it probably needs to be watered more frequently.
Temperature and Humidity
If there's one thing to remember, it's that staghorn ferns love humidity. Though more mature staghorn can survive briefly freezing temperatures, they thrive in warm, humid conditions. Care should be taken to maintain those conditions (at least above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and below 100 degrees Fahrenheit), especially when they're young.
To increase the humidity around your plant, try placing it in one of the more naturally humid areas of your home, such as the bathroom or kitchen. If that doesn't work, increase the humidity around the plant by using a small-scale humidifier or spritzing the plant periodically.
To promote increased growth in your staghorn fern, you can feed it monthly with a well-balanced, water-soluble fertilizer—this is best done during the spring and summer when the fern experiences active growth. Fertilizing frequency can slow to every other month during the fall and winter. For the amount to use, follow product label instructions.
Types of Staghorn Fern
Including Platycerium bifurcatum, there are about 18 other ferns in the Platycerium genus, several of which are also known as staghorn ferns. The other species, however, tend to be more difficult to grow and are usually cultivated only by serious enthusiasts or collectors. Some better-known other species include:
- P. veitchii (silver staghorn or elkhorn fern): This is a smaller, slower-growing fern with blue-green fronds. It is more sun tolerant, and casual growers can sometimes succeed with this plant.
- P. hillii (stiff or green staghorn fern): This is another smaller species, with very broad bright green fronds 2 to 3 feet long.
- P. andinum (American or Blake staghorn fern): Despite the common name, this native of the Amazon has 5-foot-long fronds that are much narrower than other species.
- P. coronarium (crown staghorn fern): This plant produces long, forked, and pendulous leaves that look great from a hanging basket.
- P. stemaria (triangle staghorn fern): This very striking staghorn fern produces leaves formed with deep V's that look like layers of draped horns.
- P. elephantosis (elephant ear staghorn fern): This staghorn fern grows 4-foot wide ridged leaves.
Propagating Staghorn Fern
Staghorn ferns can be propagated by division.
- Large, mature staghorn can be easily divided into small "chunks" that include a leaf and a bit of root ball.
- Plant the sections individually in pots filled with peat and compost.
- Make sure new divisions are kept warm and moist until they are growing independently.
- Don't get discouraged if newly-cut divisions take a little time to root (or if it takes a few tries)—propagating ferns takes some practice, and even experienced gardeners don't always find it easy.
Common Pests & Plant Diseases
Staghorn ferns are relatively pest-free on their own but can be afflicted with spider mites, aphids, or mealybugs, especially if nearby houseplants come down with the pests. More frequently, you'll see black spots on a staghorn fern, directly related to too much humidity or traveling spores. To treat the fern, use neem oil or another natural fungicide.
Common Problems With Staghorn Ferns
The most common issue is finding the right amount of water your staghorn fern prefers. If you notice the fronds have begun to brown or blacken towards the base, it's likely your plant is being overwatered. Likewise, if the tips of the fronds begin to brown or wilt, it probably needs to be watered more frequently.
How long does a staghorn fern live?
If well cared for, a staghorn fern can live many decades. It may require periodic remounting on a larger base to support its increasing weight.
Can I plant staghorn fern outdoors?
In most regions, it is not practical to grow this plant on landscape trees, since they usually perish if temperatures fall below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but in warm climates, they will grow and spread.
Can I grow staghorn fern in a container?
Very small specimens are sometimes grown in pots filled with sphagnum moss or well-draining potting mix. But the plants soon grow large enough that mounting them on a board or bark slab is the more logical method.
What is special about a staghorn fern?
They are stunning when mounted and they don't need soil to grow lush.
Should I wipe the leaves of my staghorn fern?
Don't be tempted to wipe the white, dust-like material from the fronds of your fern. This material protects the fern from direct, harsh sunlight and drought.
Staghorn Fern, Platycerium bifursatum. University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wisconsin Horticulture Division of Extension.
Staghorn Fern, Platycerium bifurcatum. Wisconsin Horticulture Division of Extension.