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How to Grow a Staghorn Fern Indoors or Outdoors

Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.

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If you are a fan of houseplants as décor then staghorn ferns are for you. Mounted on a board, you can hang them on your wall just like a piece of art.

What are Staghorn Ferns?

Staghorn ferns are ferns which have fronds that look like deer antlers. They are tropical plants that are native to tropical areas of Africa, South America, Australia, Southeast Asia and New Guinea. In the US, they are hardy in growing zones 9 and 10. Unlike most ferns, staghorn ferns are epiphytic plants. This means that they get their water and nutrients through their leaves instead of their roots. Their roots are used to anchor the plants to the branches of trees.

Staghorn ferns have two types of fronds. The basal, or shield, fronds are broad and shaped like a kidney. They cover the roots to protect them from damage and to prevent them from drying out during periods of drought so that they can do their important job of holding on to the tree branch. As the shield fronds mature, they turn brown. This doesn’t mean that they are dead. Do not remove them from your fern.

The fertile fronds are the familiar antler shaped fronds. They stick out from the rhizome. They are called “fertile” because they are the fronds that produce the spores. Fern spores are equivalent to plant seeds. The spores are released and new ferns grow where the spores have landed.

The staghorn fern that is most commonly grown here in the US, Platycerium bifurcatum, is native to Australia. At maturity, they grow to 3 feet in diameter. There is a larger species, P. grande, known as the Elkhorn fern or Moosehead fern, that can grow to 5 feet in diameter.

The basal , or shield, fronds are green when immature and turn brown when they mature.

The basal , or shield, fronds are green when immature and turn brown when they mature.

How to Grow Staghorn Ferns Outdoors

Staghorn ferns can be grown outdoors year-round in tropical areas, US growing zones 9 and 10. They can be grown on trees, rocks or in hanging baskets. Mount your fern somewhere that is light but shielded from direct sunlight. Take a handful of sphagnum moss and make it into a ball that is 4 to 6 inches in diameter. Press it against the tree or rock where you want your fern to grow. You can also use the medium that is used to grow orchids.

Being careful not to damage the shield fronds, bury the roots in the moss. The roots should be in contact with both the moss and the tree or rock. Make sure that the rhizome is completely buried in the moss. The shield fronds should also be in contact with both the moss and the tree or rock. Using wire (not copper wire), monofilament or plastic strips, wrap it around the shield fronds and the tree or rock at least three times to hold your fern in place.

Staghorn ferns can also be grown in hanging baskets. To do this, fill a wire hanging basket with sphagnum moss or orchid medium 1/3 full. Add your plant and finish filling the basket around the roots. To hang the basket, turn it sideways so that the fern is growing vertically instead of horizontally. The interesting thing about using a hanging basket is that your fern will develop pups, which are baby ferns, all around the basket. You can leave these to grow and mature. It’s okay for your ferns to be crowded. If you like, you can remove the pups and either plant them elsewhere or give them as gifts.

Because the shield fronds cover the moss, it’s difficult to tell when to water. Too much water will rot your plant. A good rule of thumb is to wait until the fronds start to wilt, indicating that the moss is dry. Staghorn ferns can tolerate a little dryness so this will not harm it. Plan on watering about once a week during hot dry weather and slightly less during cooler weather.

Young staghorn ferns should be fertilized monthly during the spring and summer with a balanced fertilizer. During the fall and winter, you can fertilize them every other month. Mature ferns only need to be fertilized twice a year.

Staghorn ferns grown in wire hanging baskets develop pups which are new, young ferns all around the basket.

Staghorn ferns grown in wire hanging baskets develop pups which are new, young ferns all around the basket.

How to Grow Staghorn Ferns Indoors

Staghorn ferns make great houseplants because they don’t require direct sunlight. They like a sunny room in your house as long as they are not in direct sunlight. Humidity will be an issue when you grow these plants indoors. Our homes are very dry. Plan on misting your fern regularly. Bathrooms are the best room of your house for your staghorn fern because they are naturally humid. Avoid placing your fern near heating ducts which will blow dry air on them. Fireplaces and wood stoves should also be avoided.

When grown indoors, staghorn ferns are normally mounted on boards and then hung. A 12 x 12 board is a good size. Eventually your fern will outgrow the board. They don’t like to be disturbed so instead of moving your fern to a larger board, simply nail a larger board behind the smaller board being careful not to damage any part of your fern. Use a piece of pressure treated lumber, cedar or teak because they are resistant to water damage.

Most gardeners use sphagnum moss but you can also use the medium that orchids are grown in. Make a 4 to 6 inch ball of the moss and press it against your board. Bury the roots in the moss being careful not to damage the shield fronds. . The roots should be in contact with both the moss and the board. Make sure that the rhizome is completely buried in the moss. The shield fronds should also be in contact with both the moss and board. Using wire (not copper wire), monofilament or plastic strips, wrap it around the shield fronds and the board at least three times to hold your fern in place.

Water your fern when the fronds start to wilt, a good indication that the moss is dry. Staghorn ferns can tolerate a little dryness. What they can’t tolerate is too much water which will rot your plant. To water your fern, prop the board in your sink and gently run water into the moss until it is completely saturated. Alternatively, you can immerse the board in a sink or basin of water. Allow the board to drip dry before rehanging it in your home.

Young staghorn ferns should be fertilized monthly during the spring and summer with a balanced fertilizer. During the fall and winter, you can fertilize them every other month. Mature ferns only need to be fertilized twice a year.

You can hang your fern outdoors in the spring when the night time temperatures are consistently above 50⁰F. Be sure to bring it indoors in the fall when the night time temperatures drop below 50⁰F.

The Elkhorn fern, also known as the Moosehead fern, can grow up to 5 feet in diameter.

The Elkhorn fern, also known as the Moosehead fern, can grow up to 5 feet in diameter.

How to Divide Staghorn Ferns

There are several ways to propagate your staghorn fern. The fertile fronds will develop and release spores. If you are growing your fern outdoors, wherever those spores land after being released will sprout a new fern.

If you are growing your fern in a hanging basket, you will notice new little ferns, known as pups, growing around the basket. You can remove these and either plant them elsewhere or give them as gifts to other gardeners.

Most gardeners who grow their ferns indoors, propagate their ferns by division. When your fern has outgrown its board, you can carefully remove it from its board. Using a sharp knife, cut the rhizome into pieces making sure that each piece has a few fertile fronds and a few roots. Mount these new divisions on their own boards. To help them get started in their new home, water and mist them frequently. It will take a few weeks for the new ferns to start growing. Don’t be discouraged if they die. Staghorn ferns are notoriously difficult to divide because they don’t like to be disturbed from their board or branch.

© 2019 Caren White