Ferns have been a staple in the houseplant hobby for as long as anyone can remember and their popularity doesn’t show any sign of wavering. In fact, ‘new’ ferns like Phlebodium aureum, proclaimed to be an air-cleaning plant, are only just starting to gain traction.
When it comes to ferns, though, there are few species quite as wacky as the classic staghorn fern. This epiphyte is just so different from most other houseplants! It can make a fantastic centerpiece and grow very large when grown in favorable conditions.
Let’s go into staghorn ferns, what they need to thrive and how to display one.
What is a staghorn fern?
Although there are multiple staghorn fern species out there, the one that we generally come across in plant stores and garden centers is Platycerium bifurcatum. This species is naturally found in Australia as well as New Guinea and the Indonesian island of Java.
In its natural habitat, the staghorn fern grows in rainforests in an epiphytic manner, meaning it clings to trees in a non-parasitic way. It doesn’t need soil around its roots, which only really serve an anchoring purpose: water and nutrients are absorbed mainly through the fronds instead.
Like other ferns, the staghorn fern doesn’t produce seeds. Ferns are among the most ancient plant types out there and they still reproduce the ‘old-fashioned’ way, through spores. These spores are tiny and grow on the edges of the plants’ fronds, looking like little more than a layer of dust. They can be harvested to grow new staghorn ferns or left, which can result in them developing into tiny plantlets that can be replanted.
Platycerium bifurcatum has two types of fronds: shield fronds and bifurcated (forked) fronds. The former are located at the base of the plant and grow flatly, often appearing dried out or dead. The bifurcated fronds are what the plant lent its common name from, as their forked appearance is reminiscent of deer antlers.
How to care for staghorn fern
Although staghorn care is relatively straightforward once you understand what the plant needs, it might take some adjustment to understand a plant so different from what most of us are used to. If you’ve got experience with air plants from the Tillandsia genus that’s a good start.
Light. Staghorn ferns naturally grow in rainforests, clinging to taller trees. The canopies of these trees block out most direct sunlight, though by no means do they completely darken things.
In the home your staghorn fern will appreciate something similar: a bright window but not one that gets blasted by the sun all day. Artificial lighting also works.
Water. As mentioned earlier, the staghorn fern doesn’t take up water through its roots, so it’s not really useful to water the traditional way. In fact, you’ll probably soon end up with a rotting plant if you go that route.
For proper staghorn fern watering you’ll have to whip out your plant mister and the showerhead or garden hose. In the home it’s probably a good idea to give your staghorn fern’s fronds a misting daily, especially during summer.
As for the more thorough waterings, you’ll likely be performing those around once a week during summer and once every two weeks during winter, depending on light and temperature. Soaking is the easiest way to go about this: place the plant in the bathtub or outside and run room temperature water over it. Then, let it drip dry and put it back in its place.
Humidity. The staghorn fern is a typical jungle plant that does appreciate plenty of humidity. If your home has very dry air it might not be happy in there.
Try placing the plant in one of the more humid areas of the house, like the bathroom, or run a humidifier to keep the moisture levels up.
Temperature. Again, you’ll have to think jungle here. The staghorn fern is totally happy indoors at room temperature and although it can take a little bit of cold it’s probably best not to let things drop below 50 °F/10 °C. Keep that in mind if you want to grow it outdoors.
Planting. Because this species is epiphytic, it will not do well at all when planted in the normal planter + soil combo.
Although small staghorn ferns will often be sold in pots for convenience, the most natural way to grow this plant is to mount it. The section below describes how that works.
Mounting a staghorn fern
If you bought a staghorn fern that is growing in a normal planter, you may want to think about changing its home base come springtime. These plants have evolved to grow on trees and will certainly thrive best when grown in a similar fashion in the home. And that’s no punishment for us: a mounted staghorn fern makes for a gorgeous room centerpiece.
There are of course lots of ways to go about mounting your staghorn fern. Here’s what you need for a simple but beautiful display:
- Your staghorn fern
- Wooden board, as simple or fancy as you’d like
- Nails and hammer, or a staple gun
- Rope or bracket(s) for hanging
Tip: Don’t like the burlap look? You can also gently wrap the root ball in moss. Hammer two nails into the board on either side of where the fern is going to be. Place the moss-covered root ball in between these nails and then use fishing line to secure it.
Loop the line around a nail, cross it over the root ball, loop it over the other nail and go back and forth until the fern can’t escape.
About the author
Mari is the author behind Houseplant Central, a website centered around indoor gardening and keeping your plants happy and healthy.
Originally from The Netherlands, she now lives in Spain, where she spends her days writing articles about houseplants in the company of her large collection of greenery and two parakeets.