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What is a Staghorn Fern?

Kay Blynn
Kay Blynn

Ferns are among the oldest living organisms on the planet, having developed before seed-bearing plants. A staghorn fern, scientific name Platycerium superbum, is a member of the Polypodiacea family of ferns. It gets its name from the unique shape of its leaves, or fronds — Platycerium is the Greek word for "broad-horn." The staghorn fern is an epiphytic plant that is native to tropical areas of South America, Asia, and Australia.

The fronds of a staghorn fern are broad, flat, and rounded, resembling the antlers of a moose. In contrast, the fronds of an elkhorn fern for example, are not as broad and therefore resemble the antlers of an elk. The fronds on a staghorn fern can grow three to five feet (about 0.9 to 1.5 m) in length. A mature staghorn can grow to over three feet (about 1 m) wide. Because of its massive size, a mature staghorn fern can be used as a privacy screen and is commonly used a specimen plant, i.e., an unusual plant that makes a great conversation piece.

Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

The staghorn is an epiphytic plant. An epiphytic plant grows on another plant, or occasionally on utility wires, buildings, or rocks. Epiphytic plants are generally referred to as air plants and include bromeliads, orchids, and some lichens and mosses. The roots of an epiphytic plant only attach the plant to a surface of another plant.

Epiphytic plants are not parasites and generally are harmless to the plant they’re attached to. Epiphytic plants get their moisture from regular rainfall and humidity. Nutrients are delivered to the fern through rainfall and organic matter which collects in the plant itself and decomposes over time.

Ferns do not flower or produce seeds. Instead, they propagate through spores produced on the underside of its leaves. It can take over a year to produce ferns from spores, and growing conditions must be ideal to produce healthy, usable plants. Small staghorn ferns can be purchased at some nurseries and garden centers. Typically, wire or rope is used to attach the fern to a tree or structure, and in time, epiphytic roots will develop and the fern will stay attached on its own.

The staghorn fern thrives best in tropical environments in temperatures averaging 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit (about 21-27 degrees Celsius). Frost and freezing temperatures will typically kill a staghorn fern. Ferns grown outdoors prefer shaded areas or areas with limited sunlight. Indoor ferns generally require bright light. Staghorn ferns do well in greenhouses and can be grown indoors as a houseplant as long as special care is taken to deliver sufficient moisture to the plant.

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