Staghorn Ferns at a Glance
by Sydney Park Brown
Once uncommon, staghorn ferns
are now popular and widely available. They are ideally
suited to south Florida's growing conditions and will grow well in central and
north Florida provided care is given to protect them from freezing temperatures.
Staghorn ferns are members of
the Polypodiaceae plant family, and belong to the genus Platycerium. Eighteen
species are presently recognized along with many varieties and
hybrids. Staghorns are tropical plants native to the Philippines, Southeast
Asia, Indonesia, Australia, Madagascar, Africa and America. In their native
habitat they thrive as epiphytes, generally found growing on tree trunks,
branches, or rocks. Tropical rains provide moisture
and wash nutrients into the root area.
Staghorn ferns are valued for
their highly variable and unusual growth habits. The plant
distinctly different fronds (i.e., leaves), (a) basal and (b) foliar. Basal
often called “sterile fronds,'' are rounded thickened fronds which grow in
layers and clasp onto a growing surface. (Figure 1- below.) The
upper parts of basal fronds
may be lobed or divided and stand erect. This
upright form efficiently collects water, fallen leaves,
and plant debris. These products eventually break down, releasing nutrients
for growth. Foliar fronds, also called “fertile fronds,'' are either
erect or pendant and may be divided into lobed or strap-shaped divisions. Foliar
fronds produce brownish reproductive structures (called sporangia) on the
underside of their fronds. (Figure 2 - below.) These
sporangia hold spores
which, when germinated, form new plants. Both basal and foliar
fronds are covered to varying degrees, with small stellate (star-shaped) hairs
a silvery cast. These hairs provide some protection from insect
pests and conserve moisture.
Underside showing sporangia
Most species of staghorn ferns grow readily in
Florida although much depends on the
familiarity of the grower with the specific needs of different species.
Beginners are advised
to start with the “easy-to-grow'' species, which are readily available at
local nurseries. As
you become accustomed to their culture and growth habits, you can start to
of the harder-to-grow and more expensive species. A partial list of species is
with specific cultural information and notes on their ease or
difficulty in growing.
Platycerium bifurcatum. The
most common species in cultivation and also the easiest to grow. Produces large
numbers of "pups," eventually forming a very large plant. Dark green
Hardy to temperatures of 25-30°F (1.1°C) for short periods. Many
varieties are available. Native
to Australia and New Guinea.
P. veitchii. A common and
easy-to-grow species with erect, silvery foliar fronds. Produces pups.
Semi-hardy to temperatures of 25-30°F (1.1°C) and tolerant of light frost. A
semi-desert species native to Australia that requires a lot of light.
P. alcicorne (P. vassei).
Easy-to-grow species with upright fertile fronds, dark green. Basal
brown naturally. Pups well. Semi-hardy to 40°F (4.4°C). Native to Madagascar
and East Africa.
P. hillii. Easy to grow with
semi-erect dark green foliar fronds. Produces pups. Semi-hardy
to 40°F (4.4°C).
Several varieties are available. Native to Australia and New Guinea.
P. stemaria. More difficult to
grow, requiring temperatures of 80°F (26.6°C) and not below 50°F (10°C).
Needs high humidity and frequent watering. Semi-erect, large foliar fronds with
silvery case when young. Pups well. Large plant native to tropical Africa.
P. andinum. Moderately
difficult. This dry forest species needs good ventilation, and drying between
waterings. Fronds covered with dense silvery hairs. Pups well. Only Platycerium
native to South America, specifically in the mountains of Bolivia and Peru.
Temperatures between 70-80°F (21.1-26.6°C), low of 60°F (15.5°C). Requires
P. elephantotis (P. angolense).
Moderately difficult. Thrives in warm temperatures of 80-90°F (26.6-32.2°C),
low of 60°F (15.5°C). Produces large unbranched foliar fronds, dark green.
Basal fronds brown in the winter. Large fern. Native to dry forests of tropical
P. grande. Difficult to grow.
Likes high humidity but is easily over-watered. Young plants
produce only basal
fronds. Foliar fronds reclining, light green in color. Does not pup.
below 60°F (15.5°C). A large fern, prized by collectors. Native to
P. superbum. Difficult to
grow. Very similar in appearance to P. grande when young. Easily
over-watered. Large reclining foliar fronds light green in color. Does not pup.
30°F (1.1°C) for short periods, although prolonged cold temperatures
not tolerated. Prized
by collectors. Native to Australia.
P. wandae. Difficult to grow
species. High humidity, easily over-watered. Temperatures
(26.6-32.2°C), lows of 60°F (15.5°C). Possibly largest Platycerium.
to New Guinea.
Care and Culture
Because of their relatively large size,
staghorn ferns are rarely grown in pots except when produced as small specimens
for sale at nurseries. Their natural, epiphytic growth habit makes them well
suited for mounting on slabs of wood, tree fern fiber or wire baskets. To mount
fern on a piece of wood or tree fern fiber, place a few handfuls of organic
such as peat, compost or rich potting soil on the wood slightly
below center. Shape it in a
circular mound and place the fern on it so that the
basal fronds are in contact with the
mounting material. Use wire (not copper),
plastic strips or nylon hose to secure the fern
tightly to its mount. When a
wire basket is used, pack it with an organic medium and mount
and secure the
fern “face-up” on the medium. Hang the basket sideways. Pups (small plants)
will eventually emerge from the back and sides of the basket and completely
In general, allow the medium to dry completely
between watering. This may be difficult to
judge since the outer medium may
appear dry, but the inner layers and the basal fronds will
be saturated. It may
be best to wait until the fern slightly wilts before watering. Once watered,
will quickly recover, whereas an over-watered fern will rot and die. Generally,
water once a week during dry, hot times of the year, and less during winter and
rainy seasons. Older plants, those with spongy layers of old shield fronds,
tolerate drought better than less mature plants.
A water-soluble fertilizer with a 1:1:1 ratio
(i.e., 10-10-10, 20-20-20) is recommended. Staghorn ferns can be fertilized
monthly during the warm, growing months of the year and every other month when
growth slows down. Frequent fertilization is only necessary when you want
vigorous growth. Large or mature staghorns will survive and thrive with one or
a year of controlled-release fertilizer.
Most staghorn ferns thrive best under
partially shaded conditions. The dappled light of a shade tree or indirect light
on an outdoor porch is ideal. This is the equivalent of 600-2000 foot candles.
Very low light conditions produce slow growing ferns that are likely to develop
Most staghorn ferns are considered tender or
semi-tender to cold and will not tolerate cold temperatures. There are
exceptions, such as P. bifurcatum and P. veitchii, which can
withstand temperatures as low as 25°F (1.1°C). South Florida growers will have
relatively few occasions when cold protection is needed. Most staghorns grown
outdoors are usually in protected, naturally warmer microclimates such as under
tree canopy. However, central and north Florida growers should be prepared to
bring ferns into a heated garage, greenhouse or home when extremely cold
temperatures are predicted.
Propagating staghorn ferns from spores is slow
and difficult and is not practical for most gardeners. Pups (with their root
systems) can be carefully removed from large ferns and re-established. Wrap the
roots in damp sphagnum and then tie the root ball to a mount. Eventually the
sterile frond will expand and grip the mount.
Staghorn ferns are fairly pest free. When kept
too wet, they are susceptible to a disease
called Rhizoctonia sp. This
fungus produces black spots on the basal fronds which can
spread rapidly, invade
the growing point, and kill the plant. If symptoms appear, withhold
reduce the humidity to slow the spread. Chemical controls are available and
generally effective when used as directed.
The insect pests to watch for are mealy bugs
and scales. Insecticides are effective against
these pests but may burn or
deform the foliage. Generally non-oil-based insecticides are safer
ferns than oil-based compounds. Other pests such as snails or slugs can be a
problem but are easily controlled. Contact your county Extension office for
specific recommendations for disease and insect management: http://solutionsforyourlife.ufl.edu/map/
This document is a revision of ENH36 Staghorn Ferns for Florida by G. Hennen,
former graduate research assistant and B. Tjia, former floriculture
specialist. It is one of a series of the Environmental Horticulture
Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of
Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Original publication date June
1990. Reviewed October 2003; Revised July, 2007. Visit the EDIS Web Site at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.
Sydney Park Brown, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist, Environmental
Horticulture Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of
Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville FL 32611.
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