Local Roots

Caring for your staghorn fern

In my last column, I talked about building shade structures or lathe houses to create a different climate for your shade loving plants and juvenile tropicals. One of my favorite plants that loves the shade house environment in So Cal is the staghorn fern. 

Loving everything prehistoric, unique or unusual, I am drawn to these plants because they can be so beautiful when healthy and they are not found here naturally in this desert ecosystem. Staghorn ferns belong to the Platycerium Genus and live near the equatorial regions of the planet where the temperatures are warm and moist.

Australia, South America, Africa, Southeast Asia and New Guinea each have their own individual species and are also home to those commonly found throughout the world. There are 17 individual species of this plant that can be clearly identified by their individual characteristics but there can be multiple cultivars or variations on each specie as well.

I recently met a woman while providing her with a bid on some landscape work who grows and cultivates many staghorn ferns in Rancho Bernardo. She was aware of all this and it was interesting to talk to her about the fertilizing and care of these special plants.

Most plant enthusiasts like you and me have heard about feeding the staghorn fern with old banana peels. Because the fern is epiphytic and grows on trees, conventional wisdom dictates that leaf debris falling into the “antlers” of the fern, is caught and absorbed thereby nourishing the plant.

This may be true, however; her thoughts and those of other specialists I have researched from disdain the resulting flies from this type of fertilizing and use a weak low nitrogen fertilizer during the growing season or warm weather months.

Some even recommend weekly fertilizing with small amounts of a slow release fertilizer sprinkled in the middle of the plant. This should be accompanied by regular misting in the warm weather months to prevent desiccation.

Like most epiphytes, the Platycerium grows on other plants or trees and even rocky outcroppings in the shady environs of the jungle or rainforest. Unlike mistletoe or other parasitic plants, the staghorn fern does not depend upon another plant for sustenance and makes its own food from the raw nutrients of the forest.

Two of the most common and beautiful species grown around the world are the Platycerium bifurcatum and Platycerium superbum. These two are cultivated as ornamentals and can grow more than 1 meter wide. When placed appropriately, the Platycerium species can add focal points and create an amazing tropical look to your shade garden.

Most Platycerium have tufted roots that grow from a short rhizome or root stalk that produces two types of fronds. Basal fronds cover the drought fragile roots and are sterile. These sheaths are kidney shaped and wrap around the trunk of the tree or the rocks they are attached to. In some species these fronds will form a crown of lobes catching debris and rainwater to help nourish the plants in dry times.

The upper fronds resemble stag horn or elk horn antlers and thusly coin their unique name. These fronds bear spores on their under surface and emanate from clusters of large sori usually positioned on the lobes of these unique structures.

Many species of the staghorn fern are single or solitary living and have only one rhizome or root stalk. Other species form colonies when their rhizomes begin to branch or when new rhizomes are formed from the root tips themselves. This will often result in large spaces or areas of a tree being covered in ferns.

One great technique for growing these plants is to create a plaque or growing board made from chicken wire and redwood or plywood. The ferns can be wired to the substrate and the surrounding area can be filled with moss or another water absorbing substrate that will keep the roots from drying out. This plaque can then be moved or transported to another garden or it can be removed and displayed as required.

Be careful though, after years of growth, your staghorn may become much to heavy to move or support itself.


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