Update: According to the UF/IFAS Assessment of Non-native Plants in Florida's Natural Areas, gardeners should plant staghorn fern with caution and manage its growth to prevent escape.
Once an uncommon plant find, staghorn fern (Platycerium spp.) is now quite popular and widely available. Beginner (or easily-distracted) gardeners in Florida should consider growing this fascinating tropical plant.
Staghorn fern thrives in Florida's heat and humidity; it grows quite well in South Florida and can be grown in North and Central Florida if protected from frosts and freezes.
With its beautiful and unusual foliage, staghorn fern is found throughout much of the tropical world. Staghorn fern is a member of the Polypodiaceae family; there are presently eighteen known species, as well as many varieties and hybrids of this plant. This plant is an epiphyte, meaning it gets moisture and nutrients from the air. Staghorn is found growing harmlessly on tree trunks, branches, or even rocks.
Staghorn fern produces two distinctly different fronds which are either basal or foliar. Basal fronds are also called shields; they are small, flat leaves that cover the root structure. These fronds are sterile and help with nutrient uptake by collecting water and fallen plant debris. Foliar fronds are the more eye-catching upright fronds produced by the plant. The underside of foliar fronds is where you'll find brownish reproductive structures, called sporangia. Gardeners will sometimes see what looks like brown felt on the tips of the fronds and wonder if it's a cause for concern—it's just the normal sporangia they're are seeing.
Staghorn fern flourishes in warm, humid climates and should be protected from cold conditons. It's generally considered a tender plant; most species can't tolerate temperatures below 55°F. However, Platycerium bifurcatum and Platycerium veitchii can withstand temperatures as low as 30°F. While some species of staghorn fern can be a bit difficult to care for, these two species are low-maintenance and commonly grown. Other easy-to-grow species of staghorn fern are P. alcicorne and P. hillii.
Planting and Care
Choosing the right place for your plant is an important step. While staghorn fern thrives in shaded and partially shaded areas, conditions with very low light are likely to encourage disease and pest development. Keep in mind, staghorn fern will need protection from any freezing temperatures. Mounting your staghorn somewhere protected, like under a tree or on a porch, will help protect it from frosts. However, gardeners in North and Central Florida should bring their ferns inside when extremely cold temperatures are expected, if possible.
As an epiphyte, the ideal planting spot for staghorn fern is mounted: on a slab of wood, some tree fern fiber, or even a rock. To mount your fern, shape several handfuls of sphagnum moss (or other well-drained growing medium) into a circular mound and "plant" your fern so that its basal fronds are in contact with the medium. To secure the fern to its planting surface, use plastic strips, nylon hose, or wire (as long as it's not copper). Another planting method is hanging a wire basket sideways and pack it with organic medium. When grown in a basket, small plants called pups will grow out of the back and sides of the basket to eventually cover the whole surface.
Large-growing staghorns can be remounted or divided if needed. You'll know it's time to remount your fern when the basal fronds have grown to the sides of your mount surface. In some instances ferns grow so large that remounting becomes impractical, but there's no need to worry; staghorns tolerate crowded conditions.
As far as irrigation is concerned, be sure not to overwater your plant. Since it can be hard to tell how moist or dry the planting medium is, it's best to wait until your fern wilts slightly before watering. Where a wilting fern will where quickly recover with water, an overwatered fern will rot and die. A good rule of thumb is to water once a week during warm, dry weather and less frequently during cool or cloudy weather.
Staghorn fern can benefit from the application of a fertilizer with a 1:1:1 ratio; as always, be sure to follow label instructions. While the fern is young, fertilizer should be applied monthly during warm months and every other month during the cooler months when as growth slows. Mature staghorns will thrive with a once- or twice-yearly fertilizer application.
Staghorn fern is an interesting and low-maintenance addition to any home. And you can share the growing fun through propagation—remove "pups" that emerge from the main plant and pass on to friends and family.
For more information about staghorn fern and other landscape plants, contact your local Extension office.