If you're running short on surfaces to place a plant, but want the foliage and air-cleaning benefits that our green friends provide, you may want to consider a staghorn fern. Mounted to wood boards, staghorn ferns make the most of vertical space, plus they double as wall art. Who needs taxidermied antlers when you can grow a green version? Here's what you needs to know about caring for these majestic (but somewhat fussy) beauties.
About This Plant
Also known as elkhorn ferns, staghorn ferns are members of the genus Platycerium, and they include species that hail from the temperate and tropical areas of South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Guinea. Like air plants, staghorn ferns are epiphytes. They cling to trees and rocks in their natural habitat, pulling moisture and nutrients from rainfall and the air. You might think that they would stay small with such habits, but they can get truly massive, growing to several feet across and over a hundred pounds! Your home is most likely a very different environment than their native jungles, so they'll grow slowly, and need special care indoors (see below). The ASPCA lists the common staghorn fern as non-toxic to dogs and cats, and its wall-mounted habitat means that this plant might be a good choice for you if you have one of those pets who won't leave accessible plants alone.
Where to Grow
Staghorn ferns need bright, indirect light, with no direct sunlight. The higher the humidity, the better. Bathrooms and kitchens, generally the most humid rooms in a home, are probably the best match for this plant. Normal room temperatures are fine, but the warmer it is, the more moisture they'll need. In tropical climates, where the temperature is generally above about 50° F (10° C), they can be kept outdoors, but they'll need to be brought inside for the winter if it gets below freezing.
Care and Planting
Staghorn ferns are typically sold mounted to a wooden board or plaque. To save money, you can also buy young staghorn ferns in pots, and then mount them yourself. (I recently did this, it's quite easy. Here's a how-to.) Long-term, they do need to be mounted to a board, or kept wrapped in moss or coir in a basket.
Watering correctly is the most important part of care for this plant. Staghorn ferns need regular misting, and soaking. Mist the entire plant, including the undersides of the fronds. The less humidity where it's kept, the hotter the temperature, and more light it gets, the more misting it will need. The same rules apply for the frequency of watering, which is done by soaking. Place the entire fern, plant-side down, in a bucket or sink full of room-temperature water, and allow to soak until the root-ball is saturated, approximately 10 minutes. Allow the plant to drip dry, and let the root-ball dry out before watering again.
Over- or under-watering can both spell doom for this plant, so start with watering once a week, and adjust as necessary. Wilting, or browning at the tips of the fronds indicates under-watering, and browning or blackening at the base of the fronds means you're over-watering. During the spring and summer, you can fertilize with a water-soluble fertilizer monthly to help promote growth. Alternatively, you can also fertilize with worm-casings and fish emulsion during the summer months.
How to Propagate
If you're lucky, a large and happy staghorn fern may eventually produce plantlets at the base of the fern. After they've grown to at least 4 inches in diameter and developed several fronds of their own, these "pups" and their roots can be carefully separated from the mother plant with a clean knife, and mounted on a board.