Gar­den­ing with kids: What is an epi­phyte?

Alberta Gardener Magazine - - Contents - By Tania Mof­fat

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.

An­cient plants

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.

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