If you’ve ever seen something that looks like a hunting trophy but is in shades of green, you can rest assured that it is not of animal origin.
More than likely you’re gazing upon a staghorn fern, a tropical plant that has a marked resemblance to deer or elk antlers.
At one time rare in California gardens, staghorn ferns are becoming more popular in recent years among gardeners who like the plants’ unusual appearance.
Most commonly seen is a species called Platycerium bifurcatum, meaning “flat waxy antler twice-forked,” which is native to Australia. It is an epiphyte, a type of plant that attaches itself to trees and anchors itself with thread-like roots. However, staghorns are not parasites, but instead enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the host tree.
There’s no doubt that staghorns are impressive upon first glance. They can be several feet across, or can even circle the trunk of their host tree if left to their own devices.
One man who caught staghorn fever many years ago is Jon Kasky of Carmel Valley, California, who keeps his ferns under the large oak trees in the front yard, a shade-dappled haven for the plants, and others inside garden rooms in his home.
The bifucatums can stay outside year-round, but others, like Platycerium superbum, are less hardy and need to be kept inside during the winter, Kasky said.
His first staghorn is almost 40 years old and is still going strong. It’s a unique clone that Kasky said he hasn’t seen anywhere else.
Staghorn ferns are native to Africa, Asia, South America and Australia. Their fronds, which are from 18 inches to 3 feet in length, are narrow at the base and then divide into the floppy horn-like tips that give them their common name.
The base of the plants is made up of fronds called shields which lie flat against whatever the staghorn fern is attached to. These shields help catch dead leaves and organic material to nourish the plant.
Staghorns can reproduce in several ways – via spores that develop on the underside of the “antlers,” as well as from buds on the plant’s base that will develop into young plants.
And as long as Platycerium bifurcatum is kept in a sheltered place away from frost, they’ll do just fine out of doors.
Here are some tips from Kasky on caring for staghorn ferns:
• Regular watering is necessary for staghorns to look their best, although unlike normal ferns, they can go dry between waterings. If they are on a mounted board, they need to be soaked once or twice a week, and more often in hot weather, Kasky said.
• Water the moss so that it’s thoroughly soaked, or submerge the whole plant if possible.
• Staghorns also enjoy being misted between waterings, especially in hotter environments. They’ll live anywhere that other subtropicals can be grown, such as avocados.
• Application of fertilizer should be at quarter-strength, Kasky notes. You can also feed your plant by tucking a banana behind the moss. The banana will break down and provide nutrients to the plant.
• Staghorns do best in dappled shade underneath a tree. Make sure the fern is located in a place where it can be seen and reached easily. The plants can also be placed under an eave near a front door. Watch the sun exposure, though – too much will burn the tops of the fronds.
Interview with Jon Kasky, October 2013