How To: Turn Your House Into a Staghorn Fern Party

PHOTOS BY THE HORTICULT

With leaves shaped like deer antlers, the staghorn fern is one part plant, one part trophy art. It’s flora imitating fauna! As an epiphyte, this plant grows against structures — like trees or DIY frames — for support and protection while drawing its hydration and nutrients from the rain and air, rather than from soil. In short, the staghorn fern is a dream plant for design lovers.

Our fern envy reached a tipping point during our tour of Joe and Cristiana’s garden. We also saw several happy staghorns in Kauai, and even entered into a staring contest with an enormous one at City Farmers Nursery here in San Diego. (Fern: 1, The Horticult: 0.) After picking up a few of our own, we set out to install them in strategic spots throughout our garden.

So, keep reading for some fern-spirational photos, care tips and the DIY instructions…

But first, a note on the name. Although “staghorn fern” and “elkhorn fern” are often used interchangeably, even at nurseries, some hort sources note a distinction between the two. Elkhorn ferns (Platycerium bifurcatum) are known for their skinnier fronds, relative hardiness, and their tendency to group together, whereas staghorn ferns (encompassing species like the spectacular Platycerium superbum, P. grande and P. wandae) are known for more tender varieties, solitary growing habits and foliage that is large and in charge.

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Staghorn ferns like this Platycerium superbum at City Farmers Nursery are known for their large fronds and for growing as individuals, rather than in clusters. For that reason, P. superbum doesn’t produce plantlets (pups) the way its cousin does…

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

The elkhorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum) has narrow fronds and pups growing together en masse, so close they can appear to be one plant. That said, “elkhorn” and “staghorn” are often used interchangeably.

Staghorn and Elkhorn Fern Facts

– Hardy outdoors in USDA zones 9 through 12. P. bifurcatum and P. superbum are hardy down to 30 degrees Fahrenheit.

– Can reach up to 300 pounds (!!) in weight.

– Prices start around $15 for a smallish to medium plant and can easily run over $100.

– Thrives in part shade with indirect light. The more direct the light, the more moisture will be required to keep your plant from drying out.

– Commonly grown on trees, wooden boards, wire baskets, even suspended from chains. (These ferns will quickly outgrow pots.)

– Hydrate the entire plant with warm water when substrate (e.g. sphagnum moss) dries out completely, perhaps once a week. Regular misting during hot months is also recommended.

– This handy-dandy guide from Dave’s Garden recommends using a slow-release, balanced (1:1:1) fertilizer once a month.

– The shield-shaped leaves are the basal fronds. They eventually dry up, but don’t remove them! These basal (aka sterile) fronds provide support for the plant.

– Those lovely dangling foliar fronds (aka fertile fronds) are where the spores form, and how baby ferns are made.

Here are some shots of our favorite ferns:

Staring down a majestic Platycerium superbum at City Farmer's Nursery in San Diego.

Toe to toe with that majestic Platycerium superbum at City Farmers Nursery in San Diego.

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

We gazed right in the eye of the great beast!

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

During our tour of Joe and Cristiana’s garden, Joe introduced us to numerous Platycerium bifurcatum specimens lining the perimeter of their garden.

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

For this outdoor installation, Joe mounted elkhorn ferns to a hanging board, and then centered it in a weathered wooden frame.

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

During our tour of North Country Farms in Kauai, we found staghorn/elkhorn ferns in their element. These ferns thrive in warm, humid climates and indirect light beneath trees.

Platycerium bifurcatum

Back in Encinitas, a cluster of elkhorn ferns occupies a tree at the Self-Realization Fellowship.

Elkhorn fern in hanging basket arrangement.

This is actually a hanging wire basket of elkhorn ferns. Elkhorns (Platycerium bifurcatum) produce numerous offsets, or pups.

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Staghorn and elkhorn ferns will attach themselves naturally to boards. First, however, you will need to mount them with twine, fishing line or even nails until they attach themselves. The flat green fronds at the base are called “basal fronds,” and are sterile. The fertile fronds that look like antlers reach out and grab moisture from the air. It is important not to disturb the basal fronds at the base even when they have turned brown.

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

During our visit, Joe reached in and gently separated a pup from undeneath the cover of mature elkhorns.

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

This offset is ready for mounting. We can clearly see the short roots behind the basal frond.

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

After watching Joe easily separate a pup from a gang of elkhorns, Ryan got the wild idea of covering up a somewhat janky section of fencing with a single fern-tastic offset. Whether you’re covering up an ugly spot on a fence or mounting a Platycerium to a board, the procedure is pretty simple. Here’s how to do it:

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Put a fern on it! We cover up a nasty spot on our fence with a lovely elkhorn fern.

How to Mount a Staghorn (or Elkhorn) Fern 

You’ll need:

– A staghorn or elkhorn fern

– A large clump of sphagnum or green moss, preferably organic.

– Galvanized nails for rust resistance

– Twine or fishing line (50lb or thicker)

– Scissors

– Hammer

– Hose

– A baseboard or fence. If location is fixed, make sure the location is shady. If you are below zone 9, mount your fern on a baseboard, and move indoors during colder months to avoid frosts that will likely kill your Platycerium.

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Step 1. Prepare the base. Hammer nails for attachment points.

Our base material is a pressure-treated (rot-resistant) fencepost. If mounting to DIY wood base, we recommend using cedar or redwood, which is naturally rot resistant. You can expect at least 5-10 years of loyal service before having to replace. We hammered nails around the portion of fencepost that needed to be covered up.

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Do not skimp on the nails! You’ll need about 1 nail every 1-2 inches to firmly secure your staghorn fern to the base.

 Step 2. Cut at least 15 feet of fishing line or twine, and tie a knot to the first nail.

Leave the line dangling after tying the knot. It’s important to get this first knot out of the way before you start positioning your fern.

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Triple up on the knot so you don’t lose your fern in the wind.

Step 3. Prepare the elkhorn fern.

If transplanting from a pot, most of the dirt should be moistened and removed. Platycerium are epiphytes and have shallow roots.

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Pull apart the excess dirt from the roots. Hose down the root ball to ease this process.

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

It’s okay to leave on some of the potting soil; in fact, it can be beneficial for the plant when establishing itself.

Step 4. Orient the fern for installation.

Important: you may lose orientation of the fern during transplanting. Make sure the fertile fronds are curving upward, rather than lying flat. See below.

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Left is incorrect, right is correct: fronds should point upwards, and not lie flat.

Step 5. Position the fern in a bed of green moss.

Generously place a bed of moist sphagnum moss underneath and around the basal frond while positioning on the base.

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Our green moss could use a little more moisture, but we’ll water it afterwards.

Step 6. Weave fishing line over top of basal frond and moss.

We used every nail and created a criss-cross pattern. We made double turns around each nail head.

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

The fishing line should cross over the (surprisingly durable) shield frond on every pass to assure proper mounting. In time, a new basal frond will grow to cover up the fishing line and nails.

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Et voilà!

In addition to this patch, Ryan created a larger installation for the garden. After designing and creating custom frames out of redwood, he packed the frames with sphagnum moss, and secured the ferns using the above procedure. Those frames are now installed under our citrus trees.

Expect to see them soon on Ryan Benoit Design! In the meantime, check out the process and the final product below…

—TH

En route to the stag party.

Ryan brings home a collection of staghorns from Kobey’s Swap Meet. (A good deal at $15 a piece.)

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Before constructing their frames, Ryan staged the elkhorns in their eventual location.

platycerium-staghorn-fern-mount-ryanbenoitphoto-thehorticult-2014-03-30 18.42.07

The redwood frames in an early stage.

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Our friend Rob pitches in.

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Our newly framed elkhorn ferns are now installed under our tangerine and orange trees, which provide the right amount of dappled, indirect sun.

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

Mounting staghorn ferns (Platycerium)

  • Love it!. I mounted my own a few months back and shared a post on my blog. Now all I want to do is mount some more. Great backyard!

    • Barbara, that’s wonderful! They are definitely habit-forming. Can’t wait to see how they grow. Thank you so much for the kind words!

  • Houseplant Guru

    Wow! Love the statement more than one makes!

    • Thanks so much! The row of ’em creates quite an effect 🙂

  • Brit d

    But how safe is it to use stained wood?

    • Hi Brit, Our (oil-based) stained wood was a concern of ours too, so we let it dry an extra couple of weeks to reduce the chance of uncured solvents leaching into the soil. If possible, use a water-based stain, which is likely a safer option.

  • Anil

    Great, May I know where can I get P.grande, would like to purchase
    Thanks
    Anil

    • Hey Anil, what area are you in? We get ours at our local swap meet and have seen them available at nurseries like City Farmers Nursery.

      • Anil

        I am in Bangalore city, Karnataka state, India country. I want to grow P.grande, if it is avalbl in nurseries, please let me know the address.
        Thanks
        Anil

  • Rajendra Bhat

    Superb article
    Loved the pics….i have just got my first staghorn from my Mom in Mumbai…I am based at Nashik, Maharashtra

    • Thanks, Rajendra. Indeed staghorns make stellar gifts!

  • Karena52

    Do you by any chance sell the redwood frames?? They’re outstanding! As well as your ferns!

  • Claudia Pereira

    Parabéns são lindas,queria que a minha ficasse grande assim.Amei

  • Kike Garcia

    Soooooooooooo nice and so original. Ferns and staghorns are my favorites plants!