Staghorn Fern Care: Essential Tips for Thriving Plants

Staghorn ferns, belonging to the genus Platycerium, are a group of epiphytic plants that are highly prized for their distinctive, antler-like fronds.

They thrive in the humid, warm environments of tropical and subtropical regions around the world, including parts of South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Guinea.

Recognisable by their bifurcated, fertile fronds that emulate the antlers of a stag, these ferns have adapted to grow on other plants or surfaces instead of in the soil, extracting moisture and nutrients from the air and debris around them.

A staghorn fern hangs from a moss-covered tree, surrounded by dappled sunlight and lush green foliage

In addition to their unique fertile fronds, staghorn ferns develop flat, basal leaves known as shields.

These shields start green and become brown and papery as they age, serving the important function of protecting the root systems and helping to collect organic material that supplies the fern with additional nutrients.

With about 18 different species identified within this genus, staghorn ferns are as diverse as they are striking, and their peculiar appearance has made them a favourite among plant enthusiasts.

Caring for staghorn ferns involves replicating their natural habitat as closely as possible.

This includes providing adequate humidity, ensuring proper air circulation, and mimicking the dappled shade of forest canopies.

Although they can be more demanding than some common houseplants, with the right care, staghorn ferns can be a unique and spectacular addition to any indoor plant collection or outdoor garden in the right climate.

Biology and Taxonomy

Staghorn ferns, belonging to the genus Platycerium, are a distinctive group of ferns classified within the family Polypodiaceae.

These ferns are easily recognizable by their unique frond morphology and epiphytic growth habit, meaning they often grow upon other plants.

Characteristics of Staghorn Ferns:

  • Fronds: Platycerium spp. possess two types of fronds: the sterile shield fronds and the fertile fronds. Shield fronds are often broad and rounded, serving to attach the fern to its host and to collect organic debris. Fertile fronds are typically elongated and can resemble stag’s or elk’s horns, leading to their common name.
  • Reproduction: These ferns reproduce via spores, not seeds. Spore-producing structures are found on the undersides of the fertile fronds.
  • Growth Form: They exhibit an epiphytic lifestyle, with many species growing on tree trunks or branches in their native habitats, absorbing moisture and nutrients from the air and surrounding organic matter.

The Platycerium genus comprises about 18 species, each adapted to different regions and climates. Notable species include:

  • Platycerium alcicorne
  • Platycerium bifurcatum
  • Platycerium veitchii
  • Platycerium hillii
  • Platycerium superbum

Staghorn ferns have a rhizome from which their fronds emerge. The rhizome is key to their survival, anchoring the plants in place and storing nutrients.

As epiphytes, they do not harm their host plants but rather coexist in a non-parasitic manner, making them fascinating epiphytic plants to study and conserve.

Habitat and Distribution

Staghorn ferns, belonging to the genus Platycerium, have adapted to a wide range of habitats but are predominantly found in the moist, shaded areas of tropical and subtropical rainforests.

They thrive in environments that offer high humidity and stable temperatures.

Their distribution spans across multiple continents, including areas such as:

  • Australia: Home to several species, they can be found in the eastern and northern regions, within the temperate and tropical rainforest ecosystems.
  • Southeast Asia: Countries like Thailand and the Philippines harbour these ferns in their lush rainforests.
  • Africa: They are present in the equatorial rainforests, with Madagascar possessing a unique diversity of species.
  • South America: The continent’s tropical zones provide an ideal habitat for staghorn ferns, particularly in the rainforests.
  • New Guinea: Staghorn ferns are a common sight, benefitting from the region’s high humidity levels.

The list could be further detailed as follows:

ContinentCountries/RegionsHabitat Notes
AfricaMadagascar, Central AfricaEquatorial rainforests provide high humidity required by staghorn ferns.
AustraliaQueensland, New South WalesFound in both tropical and temperate regions with sufficient moisture.
Southeast AsiaThailand, PhilippinesTropical rainforests with their humid environment offer ideal growing conditions.
South AmericaAmazon BasinThe dense canopy provides shade and the necessary humidity for growth.
OceaniaNew GuineaSupports a variety of staghorn fern species due to high humidity levels.

They typically grow upon other plants and trees but are not parasitic; rather, they are epiphytes, which derive moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, or debris accumulating around them.

The ideal temperature range for staghorn ferns lies between 60 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit (15 to 27 degrees Celsius), and they require a humid environment to mimic their natural rainforest habitat.

Caring for Staghorn Ferns

Caring for staghorn ferns involves understanding their unique requirements for mounting, watering, light exposure, and feeding.

Proper care ensures these epiphytic plants thrive indoors or outdoors.

Mounting and Potting

Staghorn ferns can be grown on a variety of surfaces, such as wooden boards, wire baskets, or even directly on walls.

To mount a staghorn fern, one needs:

  • Sphagnum moss: Soak and use as a base on the mounting surface.
  • Soil or compost: A small amount may be added for nutrient retention.
  • Wire or fishing line: To secure the plant and the moss to the mount.

Ensure that the roots are in contact with the moss and that the mounting assembly allows for air circulation.

Watering and Humidity

Proper watering is crucial:

  • Watering: Submerge the root ball in water until saturated or let water run over it in a sink; then allow to drip dry.
  • Humidity: Maintain high humidity, especially in dry environments. Mist the plant regularly or place it in a humid room, like a bathroom, to increase moisture levels. Use rainwater or distilled water to avoid salt buildup.

Avoid overwatering, which can lead to root rot and diseases like black spot.

Light and Temperature

Staghorn ferns prefer:

  • Light: Bright, indirect light; avoid direct sunlight which can scorch the fronds.
  • Temperature: Warm and stable temperatures; protect from drafts and cold in winter.

Place ferns in a location that mimics their natural habitat under the canopy of tropical forests.

Feeding and Health

To maintain a healthy staghorn fern:

  • Fertilize: Once a month with a balanced liquid fertilizer, diluted to half-strength.
  • Pests and Diseases: Watch for mealybugs and black spot fungus. Keep the plant clean and address infestations promptly.

Fertilizing encourages robust growth, while keeping an eye on health issues ensures early intervention.

Reproduction and Propagation

Staghorn ferns reproduce both through spores and vegetatively by division, exhibiting a unique dual method of propagation.

Spores, found under sporangia on the undersides of the fern’s fronds, serve as the reproductive unit for the natural dissemination of the plant.

Propagation, however, is most commonly achieved through division, specifically by separating pups or offsets from the parent plant.

When propagating by division, one must exercise care to maintain a healthy root ball and ensure each division has adequate fronds and roots.

The shield fronds, which protect the root system and generally appear as a heart-shaped base, play a crucial role during separation.

The steps to propagate by division with pups are as follows:

  1. Identify a pup that has begun to form its own root system.
  2. Separate the pup gently, avoiding damage to the basal fronds, as well as the antler fronds, which are responsible for photosynthesis.
  3. Mount the pup on a suitable substrate such as a wooden board or in sphagnum moss, conducive to the plant’s epiphytic nature.

Division can also be achieved by cutting the plant in half with a serrated knife. Both halves must retain a substantial amount of fronds and roots to ensure successful re-growth.

Cultural and Artistic Significance

Staghorn ferns, also known colloquially as elkhorn ferns, have become symbols of artistry and natural decor within homes and botanical gardens.

Their unique, antler-like fronds make them desirable as living pieces of art.

They have been embraced enthusiastically by garden enthusiasts and indoor plant collectors.

As Houseplants:

They serve as an exotic touch in home decor, thriving in the company of other houseplants and creating an atmosphere reminiscent of a rainforest.

People often mount them on wooden plaques or hang them in baskets, showcasing their artistic foliage.

In Botanical Gardens:

Globally, these ferns are featured prominently in botanical gardens, where their dramatic presence aligns with curated natural beauty.

They appeal to visitors’ sense of discovery and connection with rare and stunning plant life.

Engagement with Art and Culture:

  • Art:
  • Staghorn ferns inspire artists with their structural complexity, often featured in botanical illustrations and living installations.
  • Culture:
  • Beyond their aesthetic appeal, some cultures regard the fern as a symbol of resilience and adaptability due to their longevity and growth pattern.

In Rainforest Ecosystems:

In their natural rainforest habitats, staghorn ferns attach to trees, contributing to the luscious, multi-layered canvas of the forest.

Their presence is compelling evidence of the intricate relationships within these ecosystems, emphasizing the importance of conservation efforts.

Common Challenges and Solutions

When nurturing staghorn ferns, enthusiasts may encounter several challenges. Here’s a concise guide to addressing these issues:


Symptoms: Root rot, droopy appearance

Solution: Ensure excellent drainage and allow the plant to dry out completely between watering sessions.


Symptoms: Presence of mealybugs, often resulting in weakened growth

Solution: Remove pests manually or use horticultural oils for treatment.


Symptoms: Black spot fungus appears as dark lesions on fronds

Solution: Increase air circulation, reduce humidity, and remove affected fronds.

Humidity & Misting:

A staghorn fern thrives in a humid environment.

Solution: Regular misting can help maintain required humidity levels without over-saturating the roots.


Prefer watering from the centre to ensure moisture reaches the roots.

Solution: Soak and dry method is often recommended, especially if mounted as an air plant.


Symptoms: Insufficient light may cause droop

Solution: Position the fern where it receives bright, indirect sunlight.


Occasional removal of old or dead fronds encourages new growth.

Solution: Gently prune away dead material to maintain plant health and aesthetic.

Maintenance Tips:

  1. Keep staghorn ferns in bright, indirect light to mimic their natural habitat.
  2. Aim for temperatures between 15-38 degrees Celsius.
  3. Humidity is crucial; consider placing them in a bathroom or kitchen where they can absorb moisture from the air.
  4. Monitor the plant’s roots for signs of overwatering and adjust your routine accordingly.

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