Staghorn fern was one of the first plants in my “home jungle” – a bit of the tropics in my own little New England apartment. It’s a weird-looking plant – it has the outward spiral pattern like other members of their family, but doesn’t have the same feathery, finely-toothed leaves its cousins do.
The leaves of the staghorn are dense and heavy with wide ruffles at the ends. The name rings true – the leaves of this plant look like the rack of a wild buck. Fun fact: in nature, they grow off the sides of trees and on logs, but they’ve adapted to growing in soil. To make growing this plant at home easier and more accessible, this is the growing method I’ll teach you about here.
If you’ve recently acquired one of these plants and feel clueless about caring for it like I did when I gleefully received one as a gift, fear not – they are easy to care for once you’ve learned the basics. They’re forgiving and long-lasting and survive dry spells rather well (but don’t let under-watering become a habit!)
I’m here to break down the care protocol for this funky-looking fern. It’s one of the coolest looking plants in my own collection, so I hope that, with a little care and know-how, you can learn to love this goofy-looking plant too.
“Staghorn fern, Bali museum” by Jnzl / CC BY 2.0 This little fella is a great example of one of these plants growing in the wild. Though they grow best when attached to trees, bringing staghorn ferns indoors and potting them is an easy option for newer plant owners – that’s how I keep mine.
Staghorn Fern Origin and General Information
The staghorn fern refers to a group of 18 species of epiphytic ferns that fall into the genus Platycerium. They’re native primarily to Australia, Africa, and Southeast Asia. The fronds on this plant are supposed to resemble the forked antlers you’d see on an elk or male deer. Most people use the name Elkhorn Fern and Staghorn Fern interchangeably when they’re talking about these plants, but Elkhorn Ferns generally have slightly thinner fronds to them.
bifurcatum is a plant species that most people cultivate as an ornamental plant due to how relatively easy it is to grow. It’s native to rainforests of New Guinea, Java, and southeastern Australia. This means that this plant will thrive in planting zones that have temperatures that remain above 40°F. Ideally, you’ll plant it outside in your garden or yard if you live in zone nine and up. Another option you have is to use it as a houseplant and move it outdoors when the weather warms up in the spring and summer months before bringing it back indoors for fall and winter.
This plant has also managed to naturalize in Hawaii and Florida, and it’s considered to be invasive in Hawaii due to how quickly it can spread. They make excellent ornamental adornments for a wall indoors or outdoors in the Midwest region. In 1993, the staghorn fern won the Royal Horticultural Society’s Garden Merit Award.
When this plant matures, it can get to an impressive three feet wide. The plant will grow from very short rhizomes that can produce two frond types. The non-reproductive or sterile basal fronds feature a heart shape, are rounded, and they have a clasping, overlapping, shield-like structure at the base of your fern. You may hear them referred to as back plates. They’re dull green and succulent at first, and they slowly turn cinnamon-brown to papery tan in color. The fronds flatten against trees to protect the rhizomes, and it grows tufted roots that collect detritus that provide the plants with nutrients.
The reproductive or fertile fronds are a much brighter green color with a strap shaped and a forked look. Most people consider these leaves as they grow up from the base of the plant. However, they’re arching fronds with irregular lobes, and they can get up to 18-inches long. Each frond will branch out into two or three segments several times along the leaves. Sporangia produces spores in the dark masses on the underside of the tips of these fronds. Each plant is now ready to collect several pups or suckers crammed together, and it’ll keep growing new plantlets as the rhizomes continue to expand outward and produce new fronds. Some species will grow upright to form a nest, like P. superbum.
Every staghorn species will produce both foliar and basal fronds, but the width, length, and mount of division that each frond does will vary from species to species. The fertile fronds can be drooping or erect, and some other species will form nests with upright growth habits to help trap any falling organic matter. Some form a shield shape produced by the basal fronds overlapping, and they can be kidney-shaped or rounded. Finally, some species are solitary and don’t produce offsets. They will need some type of support to grow as they are epiphytes.
As an epiphyte, this fern won’t grow in soil. However, it’ll attach to trees when it grows wild. Smaller plants can grow in containers as long as it has a very well-drained but rich growing medium. For growing them indoors, the ferns usually get mounted on bark slabs or wooden boards, in wire baskets, or you can put them on other supports that give the plant excellent drainage and make it easier to perform plant management than a living tree. Mounting them also helps you show off their unique beauty much better than you’ll be able to in a container.
You’ll need a growing medium like peat or sphagnum moss around the roots coming from the plant’s basal fronds to allow them to grow into it. The fern gets secured to the support using monofilament fishing line, plastic mesh, wire, or other materials that get wrapped through dn over the brown, dead, shield-shaped basal fronds. Never put these support systems over the green, soft fronds or you’ll damage them. As the plant produces new basal fronds, they will hide the fastening material because they’ll grow right over the old fronds.
Staghorn Fern Anatomy
One of the reasons many people are afraid to grow this type of fern is that the plant’s anatomy is quite different from most other common houseplants or ferns. There are roughly 12,000 fern species, and ferns are very ancient plants. Where other types of plants will produce using seeds and flowers, ferns don’t have either of these things. Instead, they release tiny spores into the air that will eventually turn into new plants, just like mosses and mushrooms do.
Fern leaves are called fronds, and staghorn ferns have two types. The most prominent fronds are the “antler” fronds that are bifurcated, large leaves that shoot out of the plant’s center. These are the leaves where most staghorn ferns get their names because they look like elk, moose, or deer antlers. Spores will form along the plant’s lower fronds, and they look like brown fuzz. Resist the urge to remove them.
The second type of frond in this fern is the shield frond. This frond has hard, round, plate-like leaves that surround the plant’s base. These leaves work to protect the plant’s root, and they help them take up nutrients and water. They will start out as a green color before drying up and turning brown. This is a completely normal part of this plant’s life cycle, and it’s also one of the most common misunderstandings with caring for this fern. A brown shield frond doesn’t mean that your plant is dying, and you never want to remove them.
The final part of your plant is the root ball. Since this fern is an epiphyte, the root system is very minimal. They work to attach the plant to its home. Because there are barely any roots on this plant, you have to make sure your drainage is excellent to avoid rot.
Summer Staghorn Sumac by Michael.PortrayingLife.com / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Since this fern’s anatomy is different from most plants, it intimidates a lot of people who would try to grow it. However, it’s relatively easy once you figure it out.
Pick a Breathable Yet Cozy Pot
It’s best to give your fern just enough space – don’t plant it in a massive pot hoping it will grow to fill it. On the other hand, double check that your fern isn’t pot-bound, meaning that its roots don’t have enough room to breathe and absorb water.
Potting is a surprisingly tricky part of growing this tropical plant. When you first purchase a staghorn, it will likely be planted in a small, highly constrictive pot. You should immediately replant it in a larger pot that’s about 25% to 50% larger than the nursery container. Fill the pot up halfway with organic soil (my favorite brand is Coast of Maine), place the fern in (making sure to have shaken most of the old soil out of the root ball), and cover loosely with dirt.
Since this species is accustomed to growing on logs and trees where the roots are entirely exposed to air and rain, it’s important not to compact the soil tightly – this gives the roots breathing room. While some plants do well growing in packed soil (think root vegetables, corn, and wheat), this tropical beauty isn’t one of them. Use a gentle hand with this variety.
You don’t need a fancy setup to grow a healthy, strong staghorn. I replanted mine in this upcycled plastic pot a year or so ago and she’s loving life.
Mounting a Staghorn Fern
If you purchased a staghorn fern in a normal planter, it’s a good idea to consider mounting it instead in the springtime. These plants grow on trees in the wild, and they thrive best when you add them as part of a living wall in your home. It also makes a stunning centerpiece or talking point in your room as a bonus. There are a lot of ways you can go about doing this, but you’ll need the following to create a beautiful but simple display:
- Brackets or rope to hang it
- Staghorn fern
- Staple gun or nails and a hammer
- Wooden board
To start, twist the ceiling hooks into your wooden base plate and tie the string on it so you can hang it from a nail in the wall. You can use whatever base plate you like for your wooden board, and it can be as simple or as fancy as you like. Remove the soil from the plant’s root ball as best you can without damaging the roots.
Get a burlap sack and cup the burlap very lightly over your plant’s root ball. Staple the burlap to the wooden base board and you’re ready to hang it. If you don’t like the burlap look, you can wrap the root ball lightly in moss. Hammer two nails into your board on either side of where you want your fern to go and put the root ball with the moss covering between these two nails. Use a fishing line to secure it by looping the line around a nail, cross the root ball, loop it over the other nail and repeat the process until the fern is solidly in place.
Place It in Dappled Sunlight
Staghorn ferns, like the rest of the members of their family, grow well in shady areas as well as areas with “dappled” sunlight (think sunlight that’s been filtered through the treetops). They can be found growing in moderate lighting in nature, so it’s best to try to imitate this sort of lighting in your own home.
Make sure to keep your staghorn out of direct sunlight – this will prevent scorching and dehydration. At the same time, you should still allow your plant to get some soft light. This will make sure that water absorbs properly and that they can photosynthesize.
Check out the soft lighting illuminating off these glossy young fronds. This fern is located slightly behind and underneath a skylight, which offers the ideal dappled light this plant loves.
Water Deeply on a Weekly Basis
Staghorns like a moderate amount of water – think once or twice a week. Don’t keep yourself on a strict schedule, though – be mindful of your plant’s individual needs. I find that mine needs more water in the summer (watering it about three times a week) and less in the winter (once a week).
If you’re not familiar with watering practices for houseplants, take a peek at this video from Planterina on Youtube.
The health and watering needs of your staghorn vary greatly according to your climate. If you live in cooler, damper climates, you’ll need to water it less frequently than someone who lives in an arid hot climate. If you’re forgetful about watering your plants, you might want to invest in some watering globes like these ones from Wyndham House.
Finally, make sure to soak the roots when watering, ensuring that you’re not just watering the top layer of the soil. Check that at least two inches of soil get moist. You can measure this by sticking your index finger into the pot and checking that the soil is wet up to the second knuckle. This will help your new fern grow at a healthy rate and keep it glossy and bright.
- This plant will absorb the water through the fornds and the roots. So, you should mist the plant and make sure the humidity is slightly higher for the plant to be happy.
- More humidity around the plant means less watering for you. If the plant is in a location that gets a lot of ambient humidity like in your bathroom, you can reduce how much you water and mist it.
- More heat and light mean more watering. During the summer months, pay more attention to this plant. Most species can survive a decent amount of doubt to the point that they wilt, but they can’t handle much more without damage. Mist the plant regularly in the summer and fall months before cutting back in the winter. Check the base for dryness.
- Less heat or light means less watering. The plants won’t tolerate overwatering at all. During the winter, you’ll want to reduce your watering routine. If the plant is hanging directly over a heating duct or by your fireplace, the plant will dry out faster and need more water.
- If the fronds start to turn black or brown at the base, this is a sign that it’s getting too much water. Cut back to watering it once a month until the plant starts to recover.
- If the fronds start to brown at the tips or it starts to wilt, you’re not watering enough and you should increase the watering as needed.
Though young ferns may be started in a moist traditional potting mixture, staghorn ferns should be mounted once they progress towards maturity. Staghorn ferns are epiphytes, growing on the sides of trees or other plants in the wild, and will therefore thrive in similar conditions in your home. To mount, you’ll need a starting lump of peat, compost, moss, or other organic matter to act as the base, but beyond that you should not need additional soil.
Temperature and Humidity
If there is one thing you prioritize with this plant, remember that it absolutely adores humidity. The more mature plant can survive very brief periods of freezing temperatures, they do best in humid, warm conditions. You want to work to maintain these conditions and keep the temperature above 40°F and below 100°F when they’re younger and growing.
If you want to increase the humidity directly around your fern, you should put it in one of the more naturally humid areas in your home like the kitchen, bathroom, or laundry room. If this doesn’t work well, you can get a small-scale humidifier and set it directly by your plant. Also, mist it regularly.
To encourage your fern to grow large, you can feed it monthly with a water-soluble, well-balanced fertilizer. Ideally, you’ll do this during the spring and summer months because this is when your fern is actively growing. During the fall and winter months, cut back on your fertilizing schedule.
Propagating Staghorn Ferns
You can propagate this fern through offshoots or spores. The easiest and quickest method is to use offshoots from the parent plant. On a mature fern, you’ll see it develop offshoots on the sterile and fertile leaf fronds. The offshoots are a very young version of the parent plant, and they have a tiny root system to attach them to the mother plant. You can gently twist and pull the offshoots to remove them from the larger plant.
If the offshoots don’t come away very easily, it’s too soon to try and remove them. You should wait another week or two before trying again. When you have an offshoot, it’s essential that you plant it straight away either in a bark and soil mix in a container or mounted in sphagnum moss. If you don’t give it growth medium right away, the offshoot will die very fast. When you remove the offshoots, you can thin out the bigger parent plant to make it look less messy. Also, you’ll get brand new ferns to grow.
The second way to propagate this fern is using spores that you’ll find on the plant’s fertile reproductive fronds. They’re the small green lumps on the underside of the leaves in the spring. By the later summer months, they fade to brown. You can then harvest the spores. One way you can do this is to remove one frond from your parent plant and put it in a brown paper bag. The spores will release the seeds on their own, and they’ll fall to the bottom of the bag.
You can also scrape the undecided of an attached frond to get the seeds without taking a frond away from the parent plant. You can sow the seeds using a moist growing medium, covering them in plastic, and putting them in a warm environment. The seeds will take a few months to germinate, so you will need patience. It’s common for the plants to go a full year before they’re large enough to mount.
Some Staghorn Ferns by FarOutFlora / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Propagating these ferns is a process, but you can easily get several new plants from a single parent plant as long as you wait until they’re easy to pull away to remove them.
Do not prune this plant. Sometimes, the lower fronds can change to a brown color and you can mistake them for dead leaves and remove them, but this isn’t healthy for the plant. The sterile leaves may look dead, but they actually perform vital functions for the fern and you should leave them on. They can absorb nutrients and moisture to feed the plant, and they shield the plant’s root ball. They will eventually die and you can pull them off, but you’ll only know this because you can touch them and they start to fall off.
A Few Reasons This Fern Can be a Challenge:
- Lighting level is too low
- It’s easy to overwater them
- There isn’t enough humidity
- Poor air circulation
Common Pests and Diseases
This plant is relatively pest-free by itself, but spider mites can be a problem if any nearby houseplants have them. You’ll more frequently see a black spot on your fern, and this is directly related to traveling spores or too much humidity. You can use neem oil to treat it.
It’s also one plant that is very prone to falling to household pests like aphids and mealybugs. To get rid of these pests and keep your plant healthy, you want to gently spray the plant with an insecticidal soap. It’s also prone to a mild fungal infection called black leaf spot. You’ll have to trim out the diseased parts of the plant and spray down the whole thing with a fungicide. A few other problems include:
- Brown Frond Edges – Several issues can make themselves known by the fronds. The most common reason why the frond’s edges turn brown is due to dry air. If it’s by a heat source, draft, or an air conditioner, consider moving it. Inconsistent watering schedules are also a problem.
- New Fronds are Smaller – If your fern continues to have smaller fronds, it might not be getting enough humidity or light. Try to move it to a brighter spot in your home.
- Pests – Lack of humidity and incorrect care are the two biggest reasons this plant develops pests because it’s not prone to them normally. Scale is very common, and it can appear on your fronds’ undersides. Use a small brush and rubbing alcohol to wipe it away.
- Plant Collapse – Root rot is the biggest reason for plant collapse as a result of constantly overwatering, especially during the winter months.
- Scorched Foliage or Pale Leaves – The fern is getting too much direct light, and you should move it to a more shaded location.
- Spots or Patches on the Leaves – If the spots are brown, you’re usually watering it too much. Lighter colored patches could mean that the plant is going into shock from cold water. Always use room-temperature water.
The staghorn fern can be a beautiful houseplant that works as a focal point for any room when you mount it, but proper care is a must. We’ve outlined the basic care considerations you want to keep in mind here, and you can use them to keep your plant healthy and thriving for years.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.