Gardening with kids: What is an epiphyte?
Walking through the greenhouse one Saturday morning my youngest son, Desmond, spotted an interesting plant and begged to take it home. It was the only one there and intrigued with trying to grow something new, I relented. This how we became the new owners of a small staghorn fern.
Staghorn ferns, like tillandsia are epiphytes, which means they grow a little differently than most plants. Epiphytic is a big word that means these ferns survive through absorbing water and nutrients through their leaves. In their natural environment they use their roots to attach themselves to trees and can grow into massive plants. "So why did our plant come in a pot with dirt," my son was quick to ask.
This is how you will find most epiphytic ferns and bromeliads sold in greenhouses. They can grow in soil but do not often thrive in it; the biggest problem being their susceptibility to root rot. Beginners can have difficulty maintaining a healthy plant if they do not fully understand their growing requirements. One of the reasons that staghorn fern care seems daunting is that the plant’s anatomy differs from that of most other common houseplants – even other ferns.
The staghorn fern is unlike the common varieties that generally come to mind when we think of ferns. While most ferns grow happily in shady locations in the soil, staghorns and related species as we now know are epiphytic and found growing on trees. While these plants grow on trees they are not parasitic and do not harm the host plant. There are over 12,000 fern species, a quarter of which are epiphytic. Staghorn ferns (Platycerium bifurcatum), are members of the Polypodiacae family which contains 18 different species including those known as elkhorn ferns. These species are native to South America, Africa, South East Asia, New Guinea and Australia. The most common species found here are P. bifurcatum from Australia.
Ferns are one of the most ancient plants on our planet with fossils being found as far back as 360 million years ago. Many of our ferns today are ancestors to those families which grew in the Cretaceous period 145 million years ago. Yes, dinosaur times! That tidbit of information served to further intrigue my son.
Ferns also reproduce differently than other plants. Instead of flowers and seeds, they reproduce through spores which can sometimes be seen on the undersides of their leaves. Staghorns can also reproduce through the formation of little plants, called pups, which grow off the mother plant. Pups can be cut from the mother plant with a sterile knife, wrapped in damp sphagnum moss and cared for just like the adult. We were lucky enough to have purchased a mother and pup.
Staghorns grow two types of fronds. The “antler” frond grows out of the center of the plant and is covered with tiny fuzzy grey hairs. This is not dust, don’t wipe the plant's fronds. The hairs are very important for the plant to be able to absorb nutrients from the air. These are the fertile fronds that will develop spores on their tips; don’t remove them.
The second type of frond is called the shield frond, it is sterile and should never be removed. They perform an important function by surrounding the base of the plant to give it support, protect its roots and absorb water and nutrients. Shield fronds start out as green rounded leaves and will eventually turn brown and dry along the
base of the plant. This is part of the fern’s life cycle and not a sign your plant is dying.
How to display your beautiful plant
If you’ve ever seen a mounted staghorn, fern that is, you will be blown away by how stunning these living works of art can be. Generally speaking, ferns are mounted on cedar boards, however, since my son wanted to put it in a tree we found an interesting cutting from a newly fallen tree that we decided to use instead.
First, we gathered all our necessary supplies, and began soaking our sphagnum moss in a bowl of water. Next we removed the excess soil from the plant's roots. The root-ball is fairly minimal since it’s main function is to attach the plant to its host. We laid down some burlap and placed a mat of the drenched moss on top followed by the staghorn’s roots. The tricky bit came next, as we had to encircle the rootball with sphagnum and then wrap the whole thing in burlap. With the help of a couple hands we got this done and Desmond held everything in place while I secured the burlap with fishing line, being careful not to get close to the shield frond. While we do have a pup, I decided to leave it in place for the time being as it showed no signs of developing its own shield yet. The final step was tying it down to our tree branch with more fishing line.
Caring for your fern
If you look to the natural environment of these plants they receive indirect light as it is filtered through the trees and get nourishment from humidity, rain falling on the fronds and by soaking up the water from the trunks of trees with their roots.
In homes, staghorn ferns require similar conditions – they need bright indirect light and nourishment through misting and soaking. Ferns need natural light and will not survive on artificial light. Fronds should be misted with a fine mist everywhere including under the fronds and on the shield fronds. More humidity means less misting is required. Plants also benefit from a relaxing shower. You can place your fern in the bath tub with tepid water to soak for 10 to 20 minutes until the root ball is saturated, place it upside down in a pail of water or let it take a shower until it is saturated. Let your plant dry before re-hanging.
Over and under watering are generally the cause of this plants demise in homes. More heat and light will require more water, ferns do not like over watering and can survive some periods of drought. Wilting or browning at the tip of the leaves is a sign of under-watering and browning at the base is a sign of over watering. Watering once per week in dry, hot weather and every two to three weeks during the winter months is a good rule of thumb. You may need to adjust this depending on the conditions in your home. Staghorn ferns require an ambient temperature of 10 to 38 C to be placed outside and again need to be kept out of direct sunlight.
Fertilize with 1-1-1 during the growing period and reduce this to every other month in winter.
These plants are prone to black spot if they are over-watered, but pests are rarely a problem.
Staghorn ferns can live for many years; in the wild they grow into massive plants weighing around 100 pounds with fronds two to three feet in length!
They are a stunning and lasting addition to your home. I am so glad we decided to try growing one.
Mature staghorn ferns can survive with only a twice-yearly feeding.
What you will need: sphagnum moss, a cedar board or log, burlap, fishing line and scissors.
Wrapped root ball ready for mounting.
The roots secure the plant to its base.
Staghorn mounted on a tree branch.