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 this, staghorn ferns are typically mounted to a piece of wood or board that’s hung or displayed against a wall.
Staghorn ferns have two kinds of fronds: their 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 their elegant, pendulous foliar fronds, which produce spores. Varieties of staghorn fern with longer, thinner foliar fronds are sometimes referred to as elkhorn ferns.
The type of staghorn fern most commonly sold as a houseplant is Platycerium bifurcatim. Large specimens can grow as big as three feet across, and healthy, mature staghorn ferns can grow into large clusters as the plants produce offsets, or baby plants.
Best Growing Conditions for Your 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, then filled with well-draining growing medium this way.
To mount your staghorn fern, you’ll need a plaque or flat piece of wood with a picture-hanging bracket attached to the back so you can hang it on the wall, or a piece of driftwood or sturdy tree branch. Place a handful of sphagnum moss against the wood and trace a circle around the moss with a pencil.
Hammer some small nails at regular intervals along the circle, leaving a quarter-inch of the top 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 the wire to one of the nails and crisscross over the basal fronds and moss with the wire, 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 should be kept in a space with temperatures that don’t fall below 50 degrees at night.
A good spot to consider is close to an east- or north-facing window, or several feet from a west- or south-facing window—but never in direct sunlight.
How to Care for Your Staghorn Fern
Because of the way they grow mounted on wood, staghorn ferns can be 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 yet need water.
If your staghorn fern is potted or grown in soil, you will need to water less often—just keep the soil moderately moist.
As your plant’s basal fronds grow, they will 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, support the plant, and regulate moisture.
In terms of fertilizer, feed 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.
How to Propagate Your 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 three to four inches across.
Step 2: Using a sharp, serrated knife, cut into the growing medium around the offset, avoiding the young basal leaves. If you are taking an offset from a larger, older cluster of staghorn ferns, you may need to cut into the dry, brown basal leaves to remove it.
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 as usual.