An unusual tropical plant, the staghorn fern is grown often as a houseplant or hanging plant. These fascinating plants often have multiple kinds of leaves which serve different purposes, some of which are antler-like in shape. And the shape gives this unusual type of plant its name, as if there were many green pairs of horns draping elegantly from the roots.
But what are they, and are they easy to care for? Today we’ll go over all of the ins and outs of growing this magnificent centerpiece plant and reveal exactly how you can raise your own cluster of lush, green elkhorn fern leaves.
Staghorn Fern Overview
|Common Name(s)||Staghorn fern, crown staghorn, elkhorn fern, disc stag’s horn fern, among many others.|
|Scientific Name||Platycerium coronarium, Platycerium alcicorne, Platycerium andinum, Platycerium bifurcatum, etc.|
|Origin||Australia, New Guinea, Africa, Madagascar, southern Asia, South America|
|Height||Varies with frond length, but can grow up to 3-4 feet in width over time|
|Light||Bright indirect light|
|Water||Water sparingly, increasing frequency during hot/dry periods|
|Temperature||Ideal range is 60-80 degrees. Does not tolerate frost conditions.|
|Humidity||Humidity-lover, as many come from tropical rainforests|
|Soil||Secure to board, or use peat or sphagnum moss, coconut coir, or an extremely well-draining potting soil|
|Fertilizer||Monthly applications of a diluted balanced fertilizer during spring and summer. Every other month through fall/winter. Can also fertilize with other methods, but plant produces much of its own nutrition.|
|Propagation||By spores, pups, or division|
|Pests||Aphids and scale insects, especially mealybugs. Also susceptible to rhizoctonia leaf spot.|
Types of Staghorn Fern
There are around 24 varieties referred to in texts on platyceriums. However, there’s some confusion as to exactly how many types there really are. Some varieties have been merged over the years and considered part of the same species, just different cultivars.
It’s generally assumed that, for most gardeners’ purposes, there’s actually around eighteen varieties grown commonly. Here’s a short list of some of the most popular varieties you’re likely to find.
This fern is unusual in that each plant has two different types of leaves. The uppermost leaves or “shields” will catch fallen leaves, insects, and other debris to utilize for nutrients while shielding the roots from excess water.
The lower leaves produce spores from which most types of staghorn ferns propagate. Some varieties also make pups or offshoots, and over time can grow to encircle whatever surface they’re growing on.
Platycerium coronarium, ‘Staghorn Fern’, ‘Crown Staghorn’, ‘Elkhorn Fern’, ‘Disc Stag’s Horn Fern’
This variety produces two types of leaves. The first is an upright, broad shield leaf, and the second is a long, dangling forked fertile leaf. These longer leaves carry the spores from which the plant propagates.
Platycerium coronarium originates from southeastern Asia, and is an epiphyte, commonly known as an air plant.
Two leaf types are also common for Platycerium alcicorne, one of which is a “shield”, and the other being a longer, slender frond with many finger-like tips. It’s believed that the shield leaf offers shelter to the root mass to prevent it from getting overly wet in rainforest conditions.
Originating in the tropical climates of Madagascar and eastern Africa, one popular variety is the subspecies platycerium alcicorne var. vassei. At one point, this was referred to botanically as platycerium vassei, but it has since been established to be part of the alcicorne species.
Platycerium andinum, ‘American Staghorn Fern’
The only platycerium that is native to the Americas, Platycerium andinum originates around the Andes mountains of South America.
Rather than having a domed shield-shaped leaf, this species has antler-like protrusions for both the spore leaves and the upper protective leaves. These spore-producing leaves tend to be narrower and longer than the upper leaves. It rarely reproduces from spores, producing pups which can grow to encircle the tree the plant is on.
With heart-shaped sterile fronds that can reach 18″ in length, and forked, long, arched fertile fronds of up to 36″, this elkhorn fern is one of the most popularly grown. It can be grown outdoors in sheltered locations, but is most commonly cultivated as an indoor houseplant.
Its origins are in southeastern Australia and New Guinea. Like most other elkhorn ferns, this species is epiphytic.
Platycerium hillii, ‘Stiff Staghorn’, ‘Green Staghorn’
Shield-leaves are rounded or kidney-shaped with shallow lobes. The stiff staghorn’s fertile leaves are narrower than the shields, but are still wider than other platycerium varieties with shallow lobes as well.
Sometimes referred to as the Australian clumping staghorn, it originates in Australia and New Guinea. It’s said to be related to Platycerium bifurcatum, but has a much shallower forking pattern and smaller shields.
Platycerium elephantotis, ‘Elephant Ear Staghorn Fern’
Unlike the majority of the platyceriums I’ve described so far, this one definitely has earned its name of ‘elephant ear’, as the normal forking and antler-like shape is nowhere in evidence. Instead, this plant has wide, rounded fertile fronds and tall and arching sterile fronds.
Unlike most platyceriums, this plant prefers consistently-moist soil around its roots. In fact, some growers have reported that wooden posts that they’ve grown their elephant ears on have rotted out due to being constantly wet. They originate from Africa.
Another Australian native plant, the Platycerium superbum creates a large nest frond which catches insects or falling leaves to act as fertilizer. From the nest grow longer antler-like fronds which are broad and produce spores for propagation. It doesn’t produce pups, so the only way to propagate it is from spores.
These are quite popular and easy to find, and have dominated the market in some areas of the country as easy-growing epiphytes. However, they are often confused with Platycerium grande, discussed next.
Platycerium grande, ‘Regal Elkhorn Fern’, ‘Moosehorn Fern’
At one point, Platycerium grande was considered to be a subspecies of Platycerium superbum. However, the grande originated in the Philippines, and its dangling fronds tend to be much narrower than the superbum’s.
When these plants have matured, they can easily create their own curtain of draping, slender fronds which can adorn a wall or freely flow from a hanging container. Their natural habitat is regularly being clear-cut at this point, which makes it difficult to find for sale.
Platycerium ridleyi, ‘Ridley’s Staghorn’
From the center of the large, textured shield leaves emerges a stalk filled with firm antler-shaped fronds. This is the platycerium ridleyi, a popular plant from Thailand.
This rainforest plant is considered mostly extinct at this point, but can still be found occasionally for sale to collectors directly from Thailand. Its natural habitats have long since lost their growth.
Part of the issue is that unlike most other staghorn ferns, these do not collect leaf litter in their shielding growth. That makes them reliant on ants or other insects for their nutrients. These can also be difficult to grow at home, but are still widely sought by collectors.
Platycerium stemaria, ‘Triangle Staghorn Fern’
African in origin, this variety tends to fork its draping leaves like inverted Y’s, creating the visual appearance of long triangles. Its upper shield leaves are wavy at the tips and are tall and wide.
When sporing, the spore patches appear like a chevron-shape at the central V of the sporing leaves. This forms a darker patch that can be quite appealing to look at. Some cultivars are extremely dark green, but most are a mid-range green in hue.
Platycerium veitchii, ‘Silver Elkhorn’, ‘French Elkhorn Fern’
This final Australian species tends to be covered in downy white hairs, giving it a silvery appearance. The tops of its shield fronds grow upwards to form tall, slender fingers. Meanwhile, the fertile fronds tend to be more erect than other species, having an outward extending habit before they eventually droop towards the ground.
In the wild, silver elkhorn is a lithophile, meaning that it likes to grow on rocks in full sun conditions. If grown in shadier conditions, it loses some of its silvery appearance and its more pronounced outward growth.
One variety, Platycerium veitchii var. limoneii, is sometimes referred to as “green veitchii” because it tends not to have the silvery appearance of its relatives.
Staghorn Fern Care
Despite what you might think, they’re not difficult to care for as they’re mostly self-sustaining. However, they do need a few things for optimal growth. Read on to find out more.
With the exception of Platycerium veitchii, these ferns grow in the crooks of tree branches or on tree trunks. Most can tolerate full sun, but prefer bright indirect light, such as what they get in their tropical homes. Indoors, they should be placed in the brightest location you have that doesn’t get direct sunlight.
Since they are tropical plants, they also prefer warmer climates. Platycerium bifurcatum and Platycerium veitchii can handle temperatures down to about 30° Fahrenheit. Comparatively, P. alcicorne and P. hillii want it to be above 40°, P. stemaria above 50°, and most other varieties above 60°.
These plants can tolerate hotter conditions, but tend to prefer the range between 60-80 degrees as an optimal zone. In California, Florida, and other locations which have tropical climates, these plants can survive outdoors for most to all year. However, in other areas, it may be necessary to overwinter your staghorn fern indoors.
Needless to say, the 60-80° zone makes the climate inside your home nearly perfect for growing these indoors!
As an epiphitic plant, it has roots which grasp onto wooden surfaces to hold them in place. Water is absorbed directly through the leaves of the plant. While the roots need water as well, they do not need it as often.
Watering is one of the largest sources of difficulty for growers, as it largely depends on how you have the plant mounted and how much light and heat it’s receiving.
Most people will have their fern either mounted on a wooden board, or nested into a bed of moss. The moss tends to hold more water, and can make it easy to overwater. But it’s possible to underwater as well.
Generally, it’s a good idea to mist once a week during hot and dry weather, being sure to focus on the undersides of the fertile or spore-producing leaves and the top shield leaves. During cooler times, every two to three weeks is fine.
You will also occasionally want to dampen its growing medium so the roots get a little moisture. You just want it damp, not wet. If it’s mounted on a board, running water over the board and growing medium for a minute is usually enough. Potted or hanging basket ferns can just have a little moisture added to the growing medium, but be sure it drains well!
More humidity will generally mean less watering is necessary. Placing your plant in a bathroom or other humid location will help keep it happy without needing to water.
If the tips of your antler fronds begin to brown, your fern is underwatered, and you should increase the frequency of your watering. If the bases of the antler fronds begin to blacken, you’re overwatering, and need to cut back the frequency.
Platycerium grande is slightly more drought-hardy than most of the other species. It will show signs of overwatering by forming black blotches on its shield leaves. For these, decrease the watering and try to improve airflow around your plant.
Epiphytes tend to live on wooden surfaces, so you will often find mounted staghorns with their roots wrapped in sheet moss or burlap. This provides a slightly-moist environment for the roots that mimics the leaf litter and moss that grows around them in the wild.
If you’d like to hang your plant away from a wall, you can grow it in a wire hanging basket with a coconut coir or sphagnum moss liner. Fill with an extremely well-draining potting soil (I recommend a blend of half cactus potting mix and half orchid bark), and use more moss or coir to help secure your plant in place.
Specimens grown in baskets like this will eventually form pups and develop growth to surround the basket.
It’s also common to use burlap sacks to grow ferns in, although you may need to add a mesh netting of a material that won’t decompose over time to keep the potting soil or moss inside the bag. These can be hung away from the wall as well, and will also grow to surround the bag.
Spring and summer are the times of year when your staghorn fern will be growing, and at these times, it’s good to fertilize.
Use a low-strength balanced liquid fertilizer, such as a quarter-strength diluted liquid kelp, and fertilize your plant about once a month during those times of year. You can also opt for a fern fertilizer or for an evenly-balanced liquid fertilizer, just diluted to a low level.
In the fall and winter months, your plant will go somewhat dormant. Reduce fertilizing to every other month during that time of year.
Once your fern has begun to get to the size you want, you can reduce fertilizing to slow its growth. Older specimens don’t need to be fertilized more than a couple times per year.
If your plant is positioned in a tree or somewhere where leaf litter, dust, and moss will build up around it, you may not need to fertilize at all, as it will take its nutrients directly from that. Similarly, some people like to put small bits of compost or plant matter underneath the shield leaves so the plant can feed on it, but do so sparingly.
These gorgeous ferns are most commonly propagated from its spores, by dividing it, or from offshoots called pups.
Propagating From Spores
To propagate from spores, you first must collect the spores. Look underneath the fertile, antler-like leaves for patches which have darkened and turned brown. You can cut a leaf with a spore patch off if it’s easier to work with.
Place a piece of paper underneath the leaf. Use a butterknife or other non-sharp tool to scrape the underside of the leaf to release the spores onto the paper.
Once you have your spores, you will need to prepare a container for them. There are multiple different ways to do this. You can use a sterilized seed starting tray with draining holes and a lid, or you can use a heavier plastic container with no drainage.
I recommend the process shown in the video below, as it creates a sterile environment to grow in. Just be sure that if you’re doing this process, your container is about the same size as the one shown in the video, and that it’s microwave-safe, or you may find you have a problem!
Propagation From Pups Or Division
Propagating from pups or by division requires you to examine your adult plant closely. Look for any young plants that are developing along the sides or places between individual plants. These are locations where you can make cuts to separate them.
Very large plants can also be cut in half and separated into two individual plants to reduce their size. However, it’s easier to simply separate all the offshoots.
The goal is to leave at least three inches of space around each plant’s base to ensure you have the whole rhizome and some base material. Use a clean saw and cut off the offshoots or mature plants, being sure to try to leave as much room left for mounting as possible.
Since it can be a bit difficult to describe how to separate the pups or large plants, this video will give you a really good idea of how the process works. It also shows you how to create a mounted staghorn fern!
Repotting In A Hanging Basket
While you can mount to a board (as shown in the latter part of the video above), you can also plant it in a wire basket.
Select a wire hanging basket which has a sturdy hanger and which looks like it will be capable of supporting the weight of a large plant. Keep in mind that staghorn ferns continue to grow and form pups, so you may need to divide off the pups regularly to keep the weight down!
Line the inside of the hanging basket with moistened sphagnum moss or peat moss. You can also use a coconut coir basket liner. Then pack the interior firmly with either an extremely well-draining potting mix or more peat or sphagnum to make a base for your fern to sit on.
Place the fern into the basket, being sure it’s where you want it to sit, and then secure wires to the sides of the basket, forming an X shape that surrounds the base of the fern so it is held in place. You may wish to run one wire across the top of the fern’s base, hiding it within the leaves.
Pack more moss around the basket to hide the support wires and hang it up.
Repotting In A Normal Pot
You can also plant in a normal pot, although you might need to put it on a stand as the plant grows and lengthens its fertile fronds.
Create a potting soil using a blend of half cactus potting blend (succulent potting mix will work too) and half orchid bark. Gently spread out the roots if they’re visible. Then, simply set on top of this blend, trying to ensure it’s well-balanced and that the roots have contact with the potting mix.
Be sure to leave a little space in the pot to allow for the plant to sit down inside for extra support.
Staghorn ferns don’t require much pruning, but when there is any to be done, only prune the fertile fronds.
If there are damaged fertile fronds, use a clean pair of scissors or pruners to neatly cut off the frond. If the whole frond is showing signs of damage, cut it at its base. Otherwise, simply trim it to remove the damaged portion.
The shield leaves should be left on the plant even if they are damaged. These decompose around the plant and help provide it with its required nutrition. Also, they help to protect the plant from damage, and provide extra support to keep it in place!
Realistically, you shouldn’t have many growing problems provided that you don’t overwater or underwater. However, there are a couple pests to be aware of, and one common disease.
As with almost any plant that has fleshy, moisture-holding leaves, aphids can become a problem. Scale insects like mealybugs are also a hazard. These pests literally suck the sap out of your plants, leaving spotty damage behind.
Staghorn ferns produce spores on their lower leaves, so it’s important to not blast your plant with water to try to hose these pests off. Instead, opt for a gentle spraying of all plant surfaces with insecticidal soap, which will wipe them out.
Like roses and many other thick-leaved plants, it’s susceptible to a fungal issue called black leaf spot, also known as rhizoctonia. This fungus also produces spores that can rapidly spread around your garden if left unchecked.
It’s best to use a double-headed approach to combatting this issue. Trim out and destroy diseased portions of the leaves, and spray down the plant with a mild fungicide.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Why is my staghorn fern turning brown?
A: That depends on where that browning is happening, actually!
If the tips of your fertile, antler fronds are turning brown, then the only problem is that your staghorn fern is thirsty. Increase the watering frequency a bit more, especially if it’s hot and dry out.
Between the antler fronds, if a large patch turns brown, that’s likely the spore patch drying out so it can release its spores. That means it’s time to harvest your spores!
Shield leaves regularly brown, and that is normal. Over time, the plant will replace its shield leaves and grow new ones. The old ones form a dense layer that offers extra support and protection to the fern’s base. Over time, they also decompose to become plant food.
In the fall or winter, the plant can go dormant in the cooler temperatures. It won’t grow new fronds as quickly then, which means that it may appear to be brown for a longer period of time. However, when the spring comes, it’ll green back up quickly.
Q: Can I feed bananas to my staghorn fern?
A: This is actually an interesting question. There are reports of people who tuck pieces of banana peel under the leaf shield of young plants, where it decomposes and becomes more nutrition for the plant.
This likely works quite well, but it may also attract ants, fruit flies, or other bad stuff to your fern. Also, if it’s not organic, there may be pesticides on the outside that you don’t know about.
What I would recommend instead is to take a little bit of compost and tuck that under or around the shield leaves. You won’t have insect issues with compost, and it will also provide valuable plant food. Just be careful not to use too much, as you don’t want to create a pocket that will hold lots of water!
Q: Can you give me information on the elkhorn spore caterpillar?
A: That is one pest which is extremely rare in the wild!
The elkhorn spore caterpillar, also referred to as the elkhorn fern spore caterpillar or the leather-leaf spore-eater, is a problem only in parts of Australia and New Zealand. Its scientific name is Calicotis crucifera.
Unfortunately, there is very little information on Calicotis crucifera. It is part of the species Lepidoptera, which is a caterpillar species.
It’s known to eat the spores of leatherleaf ferns, and some information states that they only eat leatherleaf fern spores. The common name of “elkhorn spore caterpillar” implies it may attack elkhorn fern spores as well, but it’s not widely documented as being a pest of elkhorn ferns.
Damage caused by this tiny caterpillar includes leaf-tip browning and loss of some, but typically not all, spores on the underside of the leaves.
It can be difficult to find Calicotis crucifera, as they tunnel within the brown spore patches on the underside of leaves. At their maximum size, they reach 6mm in length, which is extremely tiny and hard to spot. Once they have pupated by hanging their cocoon from the underside of a leaf, they emerge as an adult moth.
At present, there are no known predators of this caterpillar. Birds and other small animals may eat the adult moths.
While control methods are recommended if you find evidence of this pest, there have been no control methods recommended in most literature. I recommend a general all-purpose caterpillar killer such as Monterey BT. Bacillus thurigiensis, or BT for short, is an effective means of controlling most caterpillars.