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Staghorn ferns make particularly striking houseplants—and not just because of their long, forked namesake fronds that resemble deer antlers. Like bird's nest ferns, these plants are epiphytes, growing on the branches and bark of trees. To mimic their natural growth habit, staghorn ferns are typically mounted to a piece of wood or board that's hung on a wall.
These ferns have two kinds of fronds: round, flat basal fronds—which grow at the base of the plant and may be green and succulent or brown and papery, depending on their age—and elegant, pendulous foliar fronds, which produce spores. Varieties of staghorn ferns with longer, thinner foliar fronds are sometimes referred to as elkhorn ferns.
- Botanical Name: Platycerium bifurcatum
- Common Name: Staghorn fern
- Plant Type: Epiphytic fern
- Mature Size: 2–3 feet high, 2–3 feet wide
- Sun Exposure: Bright, indirect light
Staghorn ferns are often grown mounted on wood, which makes them challenging to water. It's best to give the whole plant, including the fronds, a good soaking in your sink one to two times per week, similar to an air plant.
However, the easiest way to hurt your staghorn fern is by overwatering, so take care to check the moisture level of the sphagnum ball. Squeeze the growing medium to check moisture. If water drips out, your fern doesn't need water yet.
If your staghorn fern is potted or grown in soil, you'll need to water it less often. Just keep the soil moderately moist.
As your plant's basal fronds grow, they'll go from bright and green to brown, dry, and papery. Be sure to leave the basal fronds on the plant, as they help protect the roots and regulate moisture.
In terms of fertilizer, give your staghorn fern houseplant fertilizer that's been diluted to half-strength once a month or so in spring and summer. Wait six weeks between feedings during the winter months. With proper light, water, and feeding, your mature staghorn fern should begin to produce pups.
Best Growing Conditions for Staghorn Fern
You can purchase staghorn ferns already mounted on wooden boards, plaques, or pieces of driftwood. They can also be grown in a very well-draining medium, such as sphagnum moss, shredded pine bark, or a mix of equal parts orchid bark and succulent soil.
To grow your staghorn fern in a pot, fill a container that has a drainage hole with your chosen growing medium, and moisten it well. Lay the fern on top with the underside of the basal fronds against the surface of the growing medium. You can also grow a staghorn fern in a wire hanging basket lined with an inch of sphagnum moss and then filled with a well-draining growing medium.
To mount your staghorn fern, you'll need a plaque or flat piece of wood with a picture-hanging bracket attached to the back. Place a handful of sphagnum moss against the wood, and trace a circle around the moss with a pencil.
Hammer small nails at regular intervals along the circle, leaving a quarter-inch of the head of the nail above the wood surface. Next, place the staghorn fern on top with the bottom of the basal frond against the moss. Tie some wire to one of the nails, and crisscross the wire over the basal fronds and moss, wrapping it around the nails as you go, to affix the plant to the board.
Place your staghorn fern in a space that receives bright, indirect light. Staghorn ferns do best in a space with temperatures that don't fall below 50 degrees at night, although they can tolerate lower temperatures.
A good spot for your staghorn fern is close to an east- or north-facing window or several feet from a west- or south-facing window—but never in direct sunlight.
Staghorn Fern Varieties
There are about 18 different varieties of staghorn ferns, not including hybrids. Platycerium superbum is typically more difficult to care for than other varieties. Plus, they're harder to find. However, their enormous leaves that extend both upwards and downwards are quite striking.
Another popular variety is Platycerium veitchii, which has a silvery undertone and long, narrow leaves. It's much easier to care for, especially because the plant is used to a semi-desert environment. Platycerium hillii is another great option for those who don't want to put too much effort into keeping their greenery alive. Its most distinguishing feature is its dark green foliage.
How to Propagate Staghorn Fern
While staghorn ferns can be grown from spores, the easiest way to propagate them at home is to wait for offsets, also known as pups, to appear. You can leave them on the mother plant for a fuller, larger specimen, or remove them to grow a new plant. Look for these new plants emerging among your fern's basal fronds. The best time to remove offsets is in early spring, at the start of the growing season.
Step 1: Gather materials to mount or pot new staghorn ferns. Examine the mother plant for viable offsets, which are ready to remove when they're 3 to 4 inches across.
Step 2: Using a sharp, serrated knife, cut into the growing medium around the offset, avoiding the young basal leaves. If you're taking an offset from a larger, older cluster of staghorn ferns, you may need to cut into the dry, brown basal leaves to remove them.
Step 3: Gently pull the cut offset away from the growing medium by the base.
Step 4: Pot or mount the offset according to the instructions above, and care for it as usual.
Common Growing Problems
Luckily, staghorn ferns don't come with too many growing issues. For the most part, they're free of pests, so you won't have to worry about spider mites or some of the other infestations that can cause the demise of many plants. However, they may be susceptible to mealy bugs or scale.
One common issue, though, is Rhizoctonia solani, a type of fungus that causes black spots to appear on the fronds. The diseased part of the plant can spread pretty quickly and eventually kill it. To make sure your staghorn fern is fungus-free, avoid overwatering at all costs.
Mahr, Susan. Staghorn Fern, Platycerium Bifurcatum. University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension.