The staghorn fern is one of the most unusual ferns in cultivation. We tend to think of ferns as having lacy, delicate fronds, but the staghorn features dramatically large fronds that may grow up to a yard long. Its scientific name, Platycerium bifurcatum, means "broad-horn twice-forked," which is an accurate description of its unusual growth habit.
The staghorn fern has two different kinds of fronds: sterile ones which are flat and kidney-shaped and lie near the base of the plant, and fertile fronds which hang down from the plant. The fertile fronds are divided in an antler-like pattern, giving the plant its name. Staghorn fronds are covered with soft scales which impart a silvery cast, and the undersides of the tips may produce brown spores.
The staghorn fern is native to the tropical forests of eastern Australia. In nature, this plant is an epiphyte, meaning it uses a tree as a support, but doesn't actually take any nourishment from the tree. The tree's trunk serves as an aerial water supply conduit for the fern in areas that may receive as much as 120 inches of rainfall a year, according to Gerald Klingaman, extension horticulturist with the University of Arkansas.
Staghorn ferns are often mounted on a slab of wood to simulate their native habitat. To mount on wood, attach the plant against a layer of peat moss, sphagnum moss or osmunda fiber, and wire it to a slab of redwood or pine. These ferns can also be placed in a hanging basket, but it is important to provide a coarse bark or some other potting medium that does not retain too much moisture; otherwise the roots will rot.
Staghorn ferns will tolerate household environments well, but appreciate the extra humidity that can be found in bathrooms and kitchens. They do best in a bright, filtered light, such as they would receive in their natural tree-sheltered surroundings. For wood-mounted staghorn ferns, Brian Baldwin of the University of Saskatchewan Extension Division recommends plunging the entire plant in a large container of room temperature water, allowing it to become quite dry in between waterings. If the fern is in a hanging basket, be sure it has excellent drainage and water only when the medium becomes dry. A temperature between 60 and 80 degrees is ideal. Once a month in the summer, pour a diluted solution of liquid fertlizer into the plant's crown.
Propagation of the staghorn fern by spores is not practical for the home gardener. A mature plant will, however, produce "pups," or young plantlets on the sides of the plant. These shoots can be carefully removed with a sharp knife and established in their own growing medium.