Staghorn ferns are found all over tropical regions of the world. There are 18 species in the genus Platycerium, but only one is native to the Americas. All are epiphytes, meaning they grow non-parasitically on other plants or sometimes live lithophytically (on rocks). They consist of fertile fronds, which are usually forked and resemble a deer or elk antler, and sterile fronds that form at the base of the plant. Sterile fronds clasp their support and provide a niche to trap leaf debris. Older sterile fronds dry out and get papery to help absorb water to use later during dry times.
Platycerium bifurcatum is the most commonly grown staghorn fern in cultivation because of its relative ease of care compared to other species and its ability to briefly withstand temperatures down to 25 degrees. This has allowed it to become naturalized in Florida, although it is native to Southeast Asia and Australia. It has also naturalized itself to Hawaii.
It grows sterile shield fronds at the base that turn brown and papery when mature. The fertile fronds are 1 to 3 feet long and light green covered with small gray hairs. Each fertile frond tends to have to fork into two lobes, which is where this species gets its name. Spores are produced at the tips of the fertile fronds, but the primary mode of reproduction is by pups--small plants that form at the tips of the roots adjacent to the mother plant.
This staghorn fern species grows in the semi-arid deserts of northeast Australia, where it is not uncommon for many months to go by without rainfall. It is often found growing directly on sandstone rocks in the full sun. The sterile fronds grow to form a cup shape, often large enough to make a nest for wombats. They have a fringed top, which is believed to aid in extracting moisture from the air.
The fertile fronds are light green with a coating of white hairs that can make the plant look almost totally silver-white. They stand upright and have long thin lobes. A popular cultivar is "lemoinei" with exceptional looking foliage for this species.
Platycerium andinum is the only staghorn fern native to the New World tropics. As the species name suggests, it is native to the Andes mountains of Peru. It typically grows on the trunks of trees where the canopy can shade it from the harsh sun. The pups are usually produced directly to the side of the plant, so it tends to form rings of plants around a tree trunk instead of clusters like other staghorn ferns.