How to propagate staghorn ferns

how we propagated the giant staghorn fern our way

The Giant Staghorn Fern or capa de Leon (Platycerium grande) can be propagated deliberately from spores even without following the advanced, but meticulous, procedure in fern spore propagation. The latter involves the sowing of mature spores on sterilized fragments of “cabo-negro” or “paslak” and maintaining humid condition all throughout until germination and seedling emergence. Mass propagation by spore can also be done through tissue culture.

Cabo-negro is a local term for the indigenous, black, trunk-like columnar plant organ probably consisting of the root of a giant terrestrial fern.

It was only by accident that we discovered that the Giant Staghorn can be mass produced sustainably by exploiting its natural method of propagation. We’ve had several large Giant Staghorn ferns in the backyard at General Santos City since about 40 years ago, but we always grow these from starter plantlets or juvenile ferns which we bought from private suppliers. Until recently, the city had a hot climate with scarce rainfall.

Giant staghorn fern with mature brownish spores

Then one day about a year ago, my mother Mama Maxi noticed plantlets, with only overlapping basal fronds, growing from the side of a lone, upright cabo-negro which has been used as support for epiphytic orchids for several years. The cabonegro was about 5 meters away from a huge Giant Staghorn Fern which clasped the trunk of a Fishtail Palm. Orchids grew on top of the cabonegro and so it was regularly sprinkled with tap water. The Staghorn itself regularly produced spores from the underside of its foliar frond.

My mother taught us the basics of gardening. At 74, she still tends the various ornamental crops, seedlings and vegetables in the backyard. She extracted the fern plantlets from the cabonegro with the help of a knife, including a segment of the cabonegro which held the roots of the fern. She then attached it to a segment of a coconut husk.

Having observed the natural way in which the Giant Staghorn Fern reproduces, we developed a protocol to propagate the fern from spores using readily available materials. We followed these procedures:

1. Harvesting of spores. We harvested the mature spores by scraping those “browns” from the underside of the fronds, placing them in an envelope, and allowing them to dry by air drying without closing the envelope. Otherwise, we cut the spore-containing frond, divide it into smaller segments, inserted the segments in a paper envelope, and dried them by exposing the envelope to full sun. After a few days, the spores separate from the fronds. These dry spores can be placed in a closed glass jar or plastic canister and stored under refrigeration.

Moistened slabs of wood with fern plantlets in plastic bags

2. Sowing of spores and care. We dusted the dried spores on the sides of the same standing cabonegro. The cabonegro was kept moist by regular watering. Care of the sown spores and plantlets, therefore, became incidental to the management of orchids which grew at the top portion of the cabo-negro.

3. Extraction of fern plantlets. It was ascertained that the green growth on the side of the cabonegro belongs to the Giant Staghorn Fern. When several plantlets reached a horizontal width of about 4-5 cm, we extracted them from the cabonegro. A chisel was used because a piece of cabonegro which held the base of a plantlet had to be included. Where several plantlets grew tight, it was necessary to slice one single but relatively wide and somewhat flat segment of the cabonegro.

The plantlets were then separated individually, taking care that as much as possible each plantlet remained attached to a segment or at least a strand of cabonegro. Sometimes it was possible to pry the cabonegro segment by hand to separate a plantlet. But in most cases the cabonegro had to be sliced with a sharp tool or with a pruning shear.

4. Transplanting of fern plantlets. Each plantlet + cabonegro segment was immediately immersed in water, pressed on a small piece of a decomposing coconut husk, and tied to a small slab of coconut trunk or wood lumber (we used rejects) or split bamboo.

The coconut trunk segments (or substitute) with attached plantlets were then watered and inserted into plastic bags. Each bag was closed tightly and kept under shade for at least 7 days without opening. This is an application of the plastic tent method, also called “bukot” or “kulob” system, which ensures that the plant is kept under high humidity, a condition which favors healing from shock and root development.

5. Care and management. The plastic bags were monitored daily to ensure that moisture inside each bag was maintained. But all bags remained cloudy from outside instead of being clear. This indicated that moisture remained and just circulated inside .

After at least 7 days, the plastic bags were opened and the plantlet-bearing slabs were removed. The slabs were hung under partial shade and tended intensively. Care mainly involved regular watering.

Disclaimer: We are not promoting the harvesting and trading of cabonegro. We are in fact experimenting on other possible growth media for fern spore germination and growth.

(Ben G. Bareja, July 2012)

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It’s a fact: staghorn ferns are stunning. Mounted on a board, wrapped in vintage burlap, and hung a wall, these plants are truly works of living art.

There are dozens of species of staghorn ferns, and until recently, they were quite rare. Now though–thanks to species native to Australia, Platycerium bifurcatum, that is relatively easy to care for and propagate–they’re increasingly popular house plants.

Staghorn fern care intimidates many people who visit our nursery, and we’ll be the first to admit that these plants can be picky. Before we dive into our best practices for staghorn fern care, it’s essential to know a bit of background information about how these epiphytic beauties grow.

Staghorn Ferns are Epiphytes

Though you can find young staghorn ferns sold in pots, mature plants need to be mounted to a board or hung in a hanging basket. Why? Because, like air plants, staghorn ferns are epiphytic plants, which means that in they grow on other plants or trees in their natural growing environments.

In the tropics (and even warmer parts of the US like Florida), staghorn ferns grow to truly massive proportions, jutting dramatically out of the crooks of trees. Their roots hold them in place, and they absorb water and nutrients through their fronds.

Anatomy of a Staghorn Fern

One of the reasons that staghorn fern care seems daunting is that the plant’s anatomy differs from that of most other common houseplants — even other ferns. There are about 12,000 fern species, and ferns are amongst the most ancient plants. Whereas other plant species reproduce through flowers and seeds, ferns have neither; rather, they release microscopic spores into the air (a bit like mushrooms and mosses), which eventually become new plants.

Fern leaves are actually called fronds, and staghorn ferns have two types. The first, and most prominent, is the “antler” frond – these are the large, bifurcated leaves that shoot out of the center of the plant, and from which staghorn ferns get their names, since they resemble the antlers of deer or moose. Spores develop on the lower these fronds, and look a bit like brown fuzz — don’t remove the spores! This is a no-no in staghorn fern care.

The second type of staghorn fern frond is called the shield frond. These are the round, hard plate-like leaves that surround the base of the plant. Their function is to protect the plant roots, and take up water and nutrients. These fronds start out green, but eventually turn brown and dry up. This is a totally normal part of the staghorn fern life-cycle — in fact, this is one of the most common misconceptions in staghorn fern care. A brown shield frond does not mean your staghorn fern is dying, and dried shield fronds should never be removed!

The final part of the staghorn fern is the root ball. Since stags are epiphytes, their root systems are fairly minimal, and help the plant attach to its home. Because the roots are so minimal, staghorn ferns need extensive drainage and are particularly susceptible to root rot.

Now that we have a bit of background about these mounted beauties, here’s our best practices for staghorn fern care.

Light

How Much Light Does a Staghorn Fern Need?

When you picture a fern, you probably imagine the shady, lush forest floors of the Pacific Northwest. You might then think that your stag will appreciate a dark space, but you would be wrong. Staghorn ferns, on the otherhand, are native to the tropics — the species that we most commonly feature, Platycerium bifurcatum, is native to Australia.

Staghorn ferns need bright, indirect or diffused light to thrive, though they must be protected from the harsh rays of the direct sun. We tell people to put staghorn ferns in the brightest space in their home where, again, the plant will not take direct sun. Rooms with Southern and Eastern exposures tend to be best, though unobstructed North windows will do. Western light is fine, but be careful, as this afternoon exposure tends to be hot and harsh.

Can Staghorn Ferns Survive in Artificial Light?

Unfortunately, the short answer is no. We don’t recommend putting your staghorn in a room without natural sun. Basements tend to be a no-go.

Water

How to Water a Staghorn Fern

Your watering regimen consists of two processes: misting and soaking.

Misting your staghorn fern

  • Use a spray-bottle that emits a fine, ambient mist, such as a brass mister.
  • Mist the entire plant, focusing on the underside of the antler fronds and the shield fronds.

Soaking your staghorn fern

  • Dunk your staghorn fern in a sink or basin of water for about a minute, or until the plant’s roots are fully saturated
  • Alternately, place the plaque in a sink or bathtub tap, and allow room-temperature water to run through the root ball until it is saturated.
  • Allow your plant to drip dry before re-hanging.

How Often to Water a Staghorn Fern

Under and over-watering are the most common causes of staghorn fern failure. There is no hard and fast rule as to how often a staghorn fern will need watering – the amount of light, humidity and heat they receive in your home will dictate your watering schedule. However, here are a few rules that tend to work well for us:

  • A good rule of thumb is to water once per week in dry, hot times of year, and once every two to three weeks during cooler months. Start with this schedule, and adjust as necessary depending on your space.
  • Staghorn ferns absorb water through their fronds, as well as their roots. This means that they respond well to misting and appreciate humid spaces.
  • More humidity = less watering. If your staghorn fern is in a space where it receives lots of ambient humidity, like a bathroom, you’ll probably be able to reduce your misting and watering.
  • More light or heat = more watering. During the summer, be especially attentive to your stag. Most species can handle a bit of drought, even to the point of wilting, but not much more. Through summer and fall, mist your plant regularly, and check the moss at the base of the plant regularly for dryness.
  • Less light or heat = less watering. Remember – these plants don’t tolerate overwatering. During the winter, you’ll likely need to cut back on watering. Keep in mind, though, that if your plant is directly over a heating duct or near a fireplace, that will dry your plant more quickly.
  • If the antler fronds begin to brown or blacken at the base, this is a sign of over-watering. Reduce watering to once monthly until plant shows sign of recovery
  • If the antler fronds begin to brown at the tips or wilt, this is a sign of under-watering. Increase watering as needed.

A Note on Moosehorn Ferns

Moosehorn ferns — Plateceryium grande — are more drought tolerant and slightly more susceptible to root-rot than other staghorn fern species.

To water these plants, we recommend that when the soil/moss at the base of the plant feels dry (if no moss is exposed, gauge by weight of mount), place plant under faucet and run the tap so water flows on the board, behind the plant, for about 3-5 minutes.

Try to avoid wetting the foliage. If a black spot appears on the flat shield frond, that is an indication of over-watering. Try decreasing watering and improving air circulation to make sure the plant is able to adequately dry out after watering. This is especially important during winter.

Temperature

Staghorn ferns are surprisingly cold-hardy, but for optimal growth, the temperature should not be allowed to drop below 50 degrees or above 100 degrees.

Staghorn ferns can be placed outdoors when temperatures stay within this range. Be extra careful to keep staghorns out of direct sun and well-watered when hung outdoors. Bring your staghorn fern back inside when temperatures get chilly at night.

Fertilizer

Fertilizing your staghorn fern will promote vigorous growth, especailly in younger plants

Feed your staghorn fern monthly during periods of active grown (spring and summer). Use a balanced, water-soluble fertilizer (ratio of 1:1:1). During periods of dormancy (fall and winter), reduce fertilizing to every other month.

Some people suggest feeding your staghorn fern by slipping a piece of banana peel under the shield frond. We’ve never tried this method, but would love to hear from you if you’ve had success!

Mature staghorn ferns can survive with a twice-yearly feeding.

Remounting Your Staghorn Fern

Our burlap-wrapped staghorn ferns are intended as permanent installations, and we don’t recommend re-mounting your staghorn fern. Since the plant is epiphytic, the root space on the original board will be sufficient.

However, when the shield fronds begin to creep to the edges of the plaque, standard practice is to attach your board to a larger piece of wood with a few nails (see image). Be careful not to nail through the shield frond or root ball when remounting!

Follow these staghorn fern care guidelines, and you should see your plant thriving in no time! Have any questions or your own best practices for staghorn fern care? Share with us in the comments!

Propagating Staghorn Ferns: Learn How To Start A Staghorn Fern Plant

A staghorn fern is a great plant to have around. It’s easy to care for, and it’s a fantastic conversation piece. The staghorn fern is an epiphyte, meaning it doesn’t root in the ground but instead absorbs its water and nutrients from the air and rain runoff. It also has two distinct types of leaves: basal fronds that grow flat and grip the plant to a surface or “mount,” and foliar fronds that collect rainwater and organic material. The two types of leaves together make for a distinctive look. But what if you want to spread your staghorn ferns around? Keep reading to learn more about staghorn fern propagation.

How to Start a Staghorn Fern Plant from Spores

There are a few ways to go about staghorn fern propagation. In nature, the plant often reproduces from spores. Growing staghorn ferns from spores in the garden is possible, though many gardeners choose against it because it’s so time intensive.

In the summer, look on the underside of the foliar fronds to find the spores. As the summer wears on, the spores should darken. When this happens, remove a frond or two and put them in a paper bag. When the fronds dry out, brush the spores off.

Moisten a small container of peat moss and press the spores into the surface, making sure not to bury them. Cover the container with plastic and place it in a sunny window. Water it from the bottom to keep it moist. It may take 3 to 6 months for the spores to germinate. Within a year, you should have a small plant that can be transplanted to a mount.

Staghorn Fern Division

A much less intensive method for propagating staghorn ferns is staghorn fern division. This can be done by cutting a full plant in half with a serrated knife – as long as there are plenty of fronds and roots on both halves they should be fine.

A less invasive form of staghorn fern division is the relocation of “pups.” Pups are little offshoots of the main plant that can be removed relatively easily and attached to a new mount. The method is basically the same to start a pup, division, or spore transplant on a new mount.

Pick out a tree or piece of wood for your plant to grow on. This will be your mount. Soak a clump of sphagnum moss and set it on the mount, then set the fern on top of the moss so the basal fronds are touching the mount. Tie the fern in place with non-copper wire, and in time the fronds will grow over the wire and hold the fern in place.

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Few things can bring such a tropical paradise and bohemian vibe to a room than a Staghorn fern, one of my favorite, favorite plants!

Not to mention it is so easy to care for, and easy to propagate – a skill you will need. When friends see how gorgeous your Staghorn fern looks, they are going to want one!

Today I will share with you two ways to grow Staghorn Ferns, and how to care and propagate them.

Staghorn ferns (Platyceriums ) got their names because of the dramatic fronds shaped like animal horns. They are epiphytes, which means they grow harmlessly upon another plant (such as a tree) and derives moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, and debris accumulating around it.

All we need to do is to mimic their natural habitat, and they will happily settle into our homes.

One of the most popular ways to grow Staghorn Fern is to mount it on wood planks with a growing medium such as peat moss.

Materials:

1 . some scrap wood to build a mounting base, we used some pallet scrap from our pallet patio remodel which you can see here!

2. growing medium: coco coir fiber

3. for mounting: clear fishing line

We build the mounting panels by cutting the wood into 18″ long slats, painting them and attaching them to two horizontal 1x4s as braces on the back side with wood screws.

Tie some wire or fishing lines to the screws for hanging.

Mature plants in a tropical climate can reach a majestic 200 pounds. But no worries, our little plant will take a very long time to get there.

Make our built-in-reservoir by cutting of the bottom off the water bottle, and poke some holes on the cap and on the sides all the way to the top. Leave the cap screwed on tightly. This will allow the water to seep through all the holes slowly.

It’s also used in our yummy strawberry tower which you can check out here.


Soak the peat moss or coco coir fiber for at least 1 hour.

Wrap the moss or coir around the bottle’s sides and bottom, and secure with clear fishing lines.

Secure the fern by tying clear fishing lines around the plates and the wood slats.

Press on the plate so that the Staghorn fern plate and peat moss / coco coir are making good contact.

Hang them in a bright spot, some morning or late afternoon sun is fine. Water once a week in cool weather, and twice a week when it’s hot. To water, simply place them standing in a sink and pour water into the “reservoir”, wait and repeat a few times till the growing medium is fully hydrated. Wipe the frames dry and hang them back on the wall.

Another great way to grow Staghorn Fern is in soil.

This method requires less maintenance, especially when a Staghorn Fern gets bigger, because the soil can stay moist for much longer than the peat moss.

Create a soil mound in a planter or basket, place the Staghorn on top. Don’t bury the plate, but press it so that the Staghorn fern sits securely on top of the soil. After a few week, roots will extend into the soil.

I only need to water our Staghorn Fern in soil once a week in summer and once every two weeks in winter!

Staghorn Fern Care Tips:

Staghorn Fern loves bright shade and dappled morning sunlight. Keep soil moist but not soggy. Fertilize once a month during warm growing season with a house plant fertilizer or compost tea diluted to 50% of recommended strength.

It will be extra happy if you bring them out on a mild or warm rainy day to get a nice bath like in the tropical rain forest!

Staghorn Fern Propagation

Although Staghorn Ferns can be grown from spores ( like seeds), it can take a very long time.

My favorite and the easiest way to propagate Staghorn Ferns is to gently remove small offshoots of the main plant and plant it in soil or attach it to a new mount.

You may also like: How to grow some of my favorite indoor plants easily in water!

Happy gardening! =)

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Several species of staghorn ferns in cultivation.

Staghorn ferns are a group of about 18 species of epiphytic ferns in the genus Platycerium of the polypod family (Polypodiaceae) native primarily to Africa, Australia and Southeast Asia, whose fronds supposedly resemble the forked antlers of male deer or elk.

A large hanging staghorn fern in a Florida landscape.

The names “staghorn fern” and “elkhorn fern” are often used interchangeably, although those with thinner fronds are often called elkhorn ferns.

A mature Platycerium bifurcatum.

P. bifurcatum is the species most commonly cultivated as an ornamental plant, since it is probably the easiest to grow. Native to rainforests of Java, New Guinea and southeastern Australia, it does best with year-round temperatures above 40°F, so it can only be grown in gardens with a very mild climate (zones 9 and above) or as a house plant that can be moved outdoors during the summer. It has naturalized in Florida and Hawaii, where it is considered an invasive species on the islands. Staghorn fern makes a great ornamental adornment for a wall indoors or seasonally outdoors in the Midwest. This species was given the Royal Horticulture Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 1993.

The sterile basal fronds.

A mature P. bifurcatum can be as big as 3 feet across. The plant grows from short rhizomes that produce two types of fronds. The sterile (non-reproductive) basal fronds are the rounded to heart-shaped, overlapping, clasping, shield-like structures at the base of the fern (sometimes called the back plates). Initially dull green and succulent, they become papery tan to cinnamon-brown with age. They are flattened against the tree to protect the rhizome and tufted roots that grow from it and collect detritus that can provide nutrients for the plant. The fertile (reproductive) or foliar fronds are the brighter green, forked, strap-shaped portions most people would consider the “leaves” growing up from the base. These irregularly lobed, arching fronds grow up to 18 inches long. Each frond branches into two or three segments a number of times along its length. Spores are produced in sporangia in the dark brownish masses (sori) on the underside of the tips of these fertile fronds. Each plant is really a collection of many offsets (called suckers or pups) crammed together and will continue to grow new plantlets as the rhizomes expand out and produce new sterile fronds.

The branched fronds (L) are the fertile fronds which produce spores in sori on the undersides of the tips (LC-R).

Some staghorn species, such as P. superbum, grow upright to form a “nest”.

All staghorn fern species produce both basal and foliar fronds, although the length, width, and amount of division of the fertile fronds varies greatly between species. The fertile fronds may be erect or drooping. Some other species have basal fronds that grow upright to form a “nest” to trap falling organic matter, while the shape of the shield produced by the overlapping basal fronds varies from rounded to kidney-shaped. And some species are solitary (don’t produce offsets).

Staghorn frens are epiphytes that need some sort of support on which to grow.

As epiphytes, staghorn ferns do not grow in soil, but attach to trees when growing in nature. Small plants can be grown in containers, with a rich and very well-drained medium. In indoor cultivation, staghorn ferns are typically grown mounted on wooden boards or bark slabs, in wire baskets, or on other supports that provide the essential perfect drainage and are more convenient for plant management than a living tree (as well as better showing off their distinctive looks and beauty than in a container). Some sort of growing medium – often sphagnum or peat moss – is provided for the roots coming from the basal fronds to grow into. The fern is secured to the support by monofilament fishing line, wire, plastic mesh or other materials wrapped over/through the dead, brown shield-shaped basal fronds (not over the soft, green fronds or they will be badly damaged or killed) to hold it in place until well established. As new basal fronds are produced, they will hide the fastening material as they grow over the old fronds.

P. bifurcatum growing on tree outdoors in a tropical climate.

These tropical plants need good air circulation, bright indirect light, warm temperatures, moderate humidity and consistent moisture. Staghorn ferns absorb water through their fronds as well as the roots so be sure to soak the basal fronds and the medium. Allow some drying of the growing medium in between waterings; staghorn ferns rot easily if overwatered. Rainwater is best if it is available. Established plants are fairly drought tolerant so can withstand fairly long periods without water. More moisture is needed when growing in summer and less in cold weather. They can tolerate more direct sunlight when humidity and temperatures are high, but also require more water when in direct light.

Provide staghorn ferns with warm temperatures, plentiful moisture and excellent drainage for best results.

These plants do best with normal household temperatures above 55F. Staghorn ferns grown as house plants can be moved outside for the growing season once nighttime temperatures are consistently in the 40’s, acclimating them gradually to the higher light levels outside. Although staghorn fern can survive briefly freezing temperatures down to the mid-20sF, it is best to move plants indoors before nighttime temperatures drop into the 40’s in the fall. Plants can be fertilized monthly during the warmer months with balanced, diluted liquid fertilizer or slow-release fertilizer pellets placed in the growing medium. Providing sufficient humidity can be a challenge indoors and may require frequent misting when ambient humidity is low. If the light and air circulation is appropriate, a bathroom is an ideal place with its periodic humidity from the shower. Staghorn fern has few pests, but may become infested with scale insects or mealybugs. The tan or brown, shield-like basal fronds shouldn’t be removed even if they look dead until they fall off naturally, as they help anchor and protect the plant. And don’t try to wipe off the tiny whitish-grey, furry scales on the fertile fronds that makes them dusty-looking as that covering helps slow transpiration. Withered fertile fronds can be pruned off.

P. bifurcatum produces pups which can be carefully removed for propagation.

Like all ferns, these plants go through two alternating stages, the diploid sphorophyte (the plant we recognize as a fern) and haploid gametophyte. Spores produced on the adult plants grow into the gametophyte, a small heart- or kidney-shaped body (that is rarely noticed as it is green and only one cell thick, without roots, stems or leaves) that has both male and female sex organs. These mature at different times to increase the likelihood of cross fertilization, releasing flagellate sperm that swim to the eggs that are produced in flask-shaped structures (called archegonia) on other gametophytes. Once fertilized, a zygote is formed, which grows into a new sporophyte.

Staghorn fern can be propagated from the spores, but because that is such a slow process they generally are propagated by division, carefully cutting off small pups with a sharp knife, making sure each piece has some fertile and sterile fronds and roots. New divisions should be kept warm and moist until established, which may take a long time.

Several other species of staghorn ferns are available from specialty growers for plant collectors (many of which are much more challenging to grow than P. bifurcatum).

  • P. andinum is the only staghorn fern native to the New World. This species from the seasonally dry forest on the Amazonian slopes of the Andes of Peru has loosely overlapping sterile fronds forming a flaring crown-like shield and very long, narrowly segmented, lobed and prominently veined fertile fronds that hang like green straps to five feet or more.
  • P. coronarium, from Southeast Asia and the East Indies, has broad sterile fronds and narrow, pendulous, forked fertile fronds up to 15 feet long.
  • P. grande is a solitary species with upright, fan-shaped sterile fronds forming a nest up to 4 feet across and large, drooping, strap-like, unbranched fertile fronds up to 6 feet long.
  • P. hillii has bright green fertile fronds only 2-3 feet long, and both sterile and fertile fronds are much broader with wide bifurcations.
  • P. veitchii

    P. superbum, native to Australia, forms a “nest” of upright, wide, bifurcating sterile fronds that traps leaves and other detritus to develop humus to provide the plant with nutrients. It has broad, branching hanging fertile fronds that dangle two to three feet below the body of the fern. Naturalized plants in Hawaii are now considered a “problem species.” It is touchy about cold, heat and overwatering and doesn’t produce offsets, so is only propagated from spores.

  • P. veitchii is smaller and slower-growing than P. bifurcatum, with fuzzy, blue-green fronds. It is more sun tolerant, too.

– Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison


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