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Staghorn Basics

Platycerium bifurcatum

Let me start with a list of caveats. I grow my staghorns in a big old house, with forced air heating in the winter. In the warmer months the staghorns go outdoors. I don't have a greenhouse. These conditions influence how I grow my staghorns and, critically, which species I grow. There are close to 20 species of staghorns native to tropical and subtropical forests around the world. Many of them grow in wet and humid places. The species I work with is P. bifurcatum. Bifucatum does well in the conditions I provide. It happens that bifurcatum is the most common staghorn, probably because it is easy to grow.

What I say here should only be taken as relating to conditions similar to mine and growing P. bifurcatum. If you live in temperate regions of the US with heated indoor winters then this method might be right for you.

Staghorn Ferns are Epiphytes

Staghorns are epiphytes - meaning they find a place to live up in the crotch of a tree. Living there a staghorn must try to catch rain and hopefully hang on to some of it in a wad of leaves and litter. It uses it's basal fronds to wrap up that precious root space and conserve the moisture it holds. That is all the moisture it will have until the next rain. In some areas it may have to survive seasonal dry periods.

Thus their only source of moisture and nutrients is what falls in from above. In the wild, a staghorn starts as a single spore, like a speck of dust, that happened to land in a perfect spot - perhaps a wad of half rotting twigs and leaves caught in the crotch of a tree. The fern's continued life in that spot is a balancing act between too wet and too dry.

Too wet is a problem when it leads to rot. If the litter mass rots and remain sodden the staghorn roots will die. The plant requires a free draining environment, as one might expect to find up in a tree. Which means it begins drying as soon as the rain stops. The moisture needed to get through to the next rain has to be contained in that mass of leaves and twigs. The staghorn's great adaptation is to grow a special set of leaves adapted for the purpose of enclosing and protecting this reservoir of moisture.

If you are new to growing staghorns...

To mount or not

If you are starting out with a new staghorn in a pot, you must decide how you plan to grow it. Staghorns are most commonly grown on a mount of some sort since this most closely mimics the plant's natural growing arrangement. The mount will hold the plant with the fertile fronds reaching out and the basal fronds extending across the vertical face of the mount.

There are however other ways to grow staghorns. As long as there is good drainage, they can be grown in a pot or a hanging basket.

How many?

The way P. bifurcatum is propagated means that new plants, bought from the nursery, will often have more than one, possibly many, small plants in the same pot. If you plan to mount the staghorn it is best to have one plant only on the mount. To determine this may require close examination. Look at the growing tips where the newest fertile fronds are beginning to emerge. If there is more than one node where these new fronds are emerging then they are separate plants. Often with plants that have been in a nursery pot for a while there will be one or two dominant plants that are making basal fronds and trying to crowd out the rest. There may also be single fronds that don't seem to be doing much. These are probably separate plants also.

It is tempting to separate the plants and double your stock. However, the shock incurred may set the plants back significantly. It may be better to sacrifice the extra plants by cutting them off at the root line.

Which end is up?

P. bifurcatum tends to grow its new fronds successively in line. If you examine where the fertile fronds start you will find that they are lined up, with the newest fronds at one end of the line. When you mount your staghorn it is best to have the line pointing up, with the newest fronds emerging at the top. This doesn't have to be exact. But if the line of new fronds is pointing down the plant will produce twisted leaves in an attempt to adapt. Note that the fertile fronds have an up and down side also.