Staghorn ferns get their name from the fronds shaped like a stag's horn or antlers. They require very little care to grow into large decorative plants. Staghorn ferns are epiphytes, growing naturally in tropical climates attached to a tree trunk or branch. As houseplants, staghorn ferns grow indoors or outside in the shade or under filtered light. They need to be taken indoors during freezing weather. Allow them to dry out completely before watering. Staghorn ferns reproduce through the germination of spores, the production of offset plants and by division of large plants.
Structure of Staghorn Ferns
Staghorn ferns produce two different kinds of fronds. Basal fronds are rounded and grow in layers attached to the growing medium. The upright structure of the basal fronds collects water and decaying organic matter to feed the plant. Basal fronds are sterile, producing no spores.
Foliar fronds may stand erect or drape down from the plant. The fronds may be divided into lobes. Foliar fronds are fertile, producing small brown sporangia on the underside of the leaves. These sporangia hold spores capable of producing new plants. Both basal and foliar fronds are covered with small silvery hairs that protect them from insects and help retain moisture.
Propagation from Spores
Spores are one of the natural methods of staghorn reproduction, but it is a time-consuming method and is not practiced by most gardeners. Staghorn ferns produce spores on the underside of the fronds during the summer. When the sporangia darken, remove the frond to a paper bag and allow the frond to dry out. The spores will fall off the frond for collection and planting. Start the spores in a small pot of peat-based soil mix. Water the soil by placing the pot in a container of water until the soil is moist. Drain and place the pot in a plastic bag in a sunny window. Keep the soil moist until the spores sprout. It can take up to 6 months for the spores to sprout and approximately 1 year to grow a small plant.
Propagation from Pups
Staghorn ferns produce small offset plants called pups. Pups removed with their roots can be nurtured and grow into a new plant. Wrap the roots in damp sphagnum, and tie the root ball to a new mount or hanging basket filled with sphagnum moss. The new fern will eventually grip the mount and grow.
Propagation by Plant Division
Staghorn ferns that outgrow their basket or mount can be divided into two new plants. Cut the plant in half using a sharp knife. Keep as many fronds on each plant as possible. Mount the pieces onto new boards, and soak them in water for a few minutes. Drain the plants and hang them.
Mounting the New Fern
Staghorn ferns are epiphytic in nature and do not need to be planted in soil. Instead, you tie the fern to a slab of wood or tree bark or insert it into a wire basket filled with sphagnum moss. To mount on wood, place a cup or more of organic compost or peat moss in a mound on the wood. Place the fern onto the mound so that the basal fronds are touching the wood. Tie the fern in place with a piece of nylon fishing line. The basal fronds will eventually grasp the wood.