Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Horticulture News
Staghorn Ferns Are Highly Valued Specimens
Staghorn ferns are commonly seen specimen plants that are highly valued for their unusual growth habits. They grow well under the shade of the magnificent oaks that grace our area. Staghorn ferns are members of the fern family, and belong to the genus Platycerium. Staghorn ferns are tropical plants native to Southeast Asia, Australia, Africa and South America. In their native habitat, they thrive as epiphytes, growing on tree trunks or branches.
The plant produces two distinctly different frond types: basal and foliar. Basal fronds, called "sterile fronds," are composed of layers of rounded thickened leaves that clasp the substrate. Basal fronds form an efficient method for collection of water, fallen leaves, and other organic debris. The break down of this material, releases nutrients necessary for growth of the fern. Foliar fronds, also called "fertile fronds," are pendant and may be divided into lobed or strap shaped divisions and form rust colored patches on the underside of the fronds which contain the reproductive spores.
Due to the staghorn ferns' epiphytic habit, they require an organic matter such as a loose, well drained potting medium for proper cultivation. Sphagnum moss alone or as a mixture with other materials (bagasse, tree fern fiber, leaf mold) make an excellent medium for staghorn ferns.
Because of their relatively large size, staghorn ferns are rarely grown in pots except when small. To mount a fern on a slab or plaque, place the growing medium on the wood slightly below center, shaping it in a circular mound. Place the fern on the medium so the bud is slightly below center of the mount and basal fronds are in contact with the medium. Use wire (not copper) or plastic stripping, to secure the fern to its mount. Wire baskets can also be used when packed with medium and hung so the top of the basket is vertical. The fern is secured to the basket using wire or plastic stripping.
Larger containers will be needed periodically as the fern grows. When the basal fronds reach the sides of the mount, it's time to place the fern on a larger mount. If the staghorn fern becomes too large, it may become impractical to remove the fern from its mount.
Staghorn ferns are ideally suited to our local growing conditions and with some care will grow beautifully, provided they are protected should freezing temperatures occur. Most problems in growing staghorn ferns result from improper watering. The outer layers of the medium may look dry while the spongy inner layers of the medium and basal fronds are still saturated with water. Allow the moss at the bottom of the mount to dry before watering, or watch for signs of slight wilting. Generally, water thoroughly one to two times per week during warm weather and reduce the frequency during cloudy or cool weather.
Water-soluble fertilizers with a 1:1:1 ratio (10-10-10, 20-20-20) produce excellent growth when used according to directions. Fertilize monthly during the warm months and every other month when growth slows down. The use of fish emulsion or blood meal is also recommended.
Staghorn ferns thrive best under shade or partially shaded conditions. Very low light conditions produce slow growing ferns and are likely to encourage development of disease and insect problems.
Most staghorn ferns are considered tender or semi-tender and will not tolerate temperatures below 55°F. There are exceptions such as the commonly grown P. bifurcatum, which can withstand temperatures as low as 30°F. Local gardeners will have relatively few occasions when cold protection is needed and covering or moving the ferns inside will be adequate.
Staghorn ferns are susceptible to attack by a fungus Rhizoctonia sp., which produces black spots on the basal fronds. The black area can spread rapidly, may kill the entire plant. This disease problem is mostly brought about by over watering the ferns. If symptoms appear, withhold water and reduce the humidity to slow the spread. Chemical controls are available and generally effective when used as directed.
Staghorn ferns have few insect pests. The insect pests to watch for are mealy bugs, hard-brown, and white scale. Insecticides are effective against these pests but may cause serious burns or deformities to the foliage. Generally non-oil-based insecticides are safer on staghorn ferns than oil-based compounds. For specific pest control recommendations, consult the Hendry County Extension Office.
Most species of staghorn ferns grow readily in Florida. Beginners are advised to start with the "easy to grow" species which are readily available at local nurseries. Good luck and good gardening!
Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service. Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975, e-mail - firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 863-674-4092 or 863-983-1598. You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle. Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.
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