By Ralph E. Mitchell
Epiphytes are plants that get their nutrients and moisture from the air and rain. They also manage to cling to surfaces like tree trunks, branches, or rocks. One very popular epiphyte is the staghorn fern. This unusual fern grows strapping fronds that curve and hang down eventually developing into a massive living “sculpture.” Gaining more and more popularity, the staghorn fern has a real fan base!
If there is one promotor of staghorn ferns in our area, it just has to be Mr. Gil MacAdam. Gil is a local treasure from Desoto County with a keen knowledge of staghorn ferns that we at Extension have tapped into more than once! With this preface into the ferny world of staghorns, let’s describe this unusual plant for novice plant collectors. Staghorn ferns originated in tropical Southeast Asia, the South Pacific , Africa and even in America. Perhaps one of the most popular staghorn ferns is Platycerium bifurcatum. Safe to say that this is the one you will most likely encounter at your local garden center. Made up of two kinds of fronds, the staghorn is well adapted to trees. Basal fronds are round, thickened structures that actually clasp onto whatever surface they are attached to. These fronds help this fern hang on tightly over its long lifetime. Also, thanks to the upper lobes of these basal fronds, water, leaves and organic matter are collected. Here this organic material breaks down and releases nutrients beneficial to the plant.
The more visible foliar fronds or “fertile fronds” are lobed and strap-like almost resembling cascading green antlers. On the underside of these fronds, the fern produces spores – the “seeds” of the staghorn. The top of the fronds are somewhat silvery as they are covered in protective hairs.
Most young staghorn ferns come in pots and must be carefully mounted to a base of some type – wood slabs, fiber, or wire baskets (hung sideways) packed with organic medium. Creativity is certainly involved here with a variety of acceptable mounting options. Keep in mind that these ferns can grow three feet wide at maturity and weight a great deal if hanging. Some specimens may need to be stepped up to larger supports over the years to accommodate the increasing mass. Start by forming a mound of moist long-strand peat moss or similar organic material situated on the mount a little below center. Orient the young fern so that the clasping fronds will have easy access to the mound of organic matter. Use non-copper wire, plastic strands or nylon hose to attach the fern to its base. Water as needed when the organic medium becomes dry to the touch. Waiting until the fern wilts slightly before watering is a common practice. Place your finished fern in a partially shaded area – dappled shade is excellent. Use a water-soluble fertilizer once a month during the growing season, and every other month during the winter season, for best growth. Staghorn ferns are not tolerant to cold temperatures and may need a cover or relocation to a protected site if a frost or freeze threatens. However, the shaded area under a tree is often a microclimate and protective enough. Some staghorn species are more sensitive than others, so know your plant temperature limits.
Staghorn ferns will produce side-shoots or “pups” which can be left to increase the collective fern mass, or removed when they develop roots from the mother fern for propagation. These “pups” can be secured in sphagnum moss and attached to their own mount. Eventually the new plant will develop the grasping fronds and make a stunning new plant. Staghorn ferns are a wonderful collectable plant that is not only a conversation starter, but also a long-term plant to perhaps pass along to the next generation. You may even make staghorn ferns your horticultural passion like Gil MacAdams! For more information on all types of epiphytes, please call our Master Gardener volunteers on the Plant Lifeline on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 pm at 764-4340 for gardening help and insight into their role as an Extension volunteer. Don’t forget to visit our other County Plant Clinics in the area. Please check this link for a complete list of site locations, dates and times – https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/media/sfylifasufledu/charlotte/docs/pdf/Plant-Clinics-Schedule1.pdf. Our Eastport Environmental Demonstration Garden is always open to the public outside the gate at 25550 Harbor View Road. Master Gardener volunteers tend this garden on Tuesday mornings from 8 to 10 am and are available for questions. Ralph E. Mitchell is the Director/Horticulture Agent for the UF/IFAS Charlotte County Extension Service. He can be reached at 941-764-4344 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Brown, S. P. (2019) Staghorn Ferns at a Glance. The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.