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.
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:
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:
How to Mount a Staghorn (or Elkhorn) Fern
– 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)
– 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…