By: Darcy Larum, Landscape Designer
At garden centers you may have seen staghorn fern plants mounted on plaques, growing in wire baskets or even planted in small pots. They are very unique, eye-catching plants and when you see one it’s easy to tell why they are called staghorn ferns. Those who have seen this dramatic plant often wonder, “Can you grow staghorn ferns outside?” Continue reading to learn about growing staghorn ferns outdoors.
The staghorn fern (Platycerium spp.) is native to tropical locations of South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Australia. There are 18 species of staghorn ferns, also known as elkhorn ferns or moosehorn ferns, that grow as epiphytes in tropical regions all over the world. Some of these species have naturalized in Florida. Epiphytic plants grow on tree trunks, branches and sometimes even rocks; many orchids are also epiphytes.
Staghorn ferns get their moisture and nutrients from the air because their roots do not grow in soil like other plants. Instead, staghorn ferns have small root structures which are shielded by specialized fronds, called basal or shield fronds. These basal fronds look like flat leaves and cover the root ball. Their main function is to protect the roots and collect water and nutrients.
When a staghorn fern plant is young, the basal fronds may be green. As the plant ages though, the basal fronds will turn brown, shriveled and may look dead. These are not dead and it is important to never remove these basal fronds.
A staghorn fern’s foliar fronds grow up and out from the basal fronds. These fronds have the appearance of deer or elk horns, giving the plant its common name. These foliar fronds carry out the plant’s reproductive functions. Spores may appear on the foliar fronds and look like the fuzz on a buck’s antlers.
Staghorn ferns are hardy in zones 9-12. That being said, when growing staghorn ferns outdoors it is important to know that they may need to be protected if temperatures dip below 55 degrees F. (13 C.). This is why many people grow staghorn ferns in wire baskets or mounted on a piece of wood, so they can be taken indoors if it becomes too cold for them outdoors. The staghorn fern varieties Platycerium bifurcatum and Platycerium veitchi can reportedly handle temperatures as low as 30 degrees F. (-1 C.).
Optimal staghorn fern outdoor conditions are a part shade to shady location with plenty of humidity and temperatures that stay between 60-80 degrees F. (16-27 C.). Although young staghorn ferns may be sold in pots with soil, they cannot survive very long like this, as their roots will quickly rot.
Most often, staghorn ferns outdoors are grown in a hanging wire basket with sphagnum moss around the root ball. Staghorn ferns get most of the water they need from humidity in the air; however, in dry conditions it may be necessary to mist or water your staghorn fern if it looks like it is beginning to wilt.
During summer months, you can fertilize staghorn fern in the garden once a month with a general purpose 10-10-10 fertilizer.
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Read more about Staghorn Ferns
The Spruce / Krystal Slagle
Staghorn ferns look very much like deer or elk antlers, hence their unusual name. Native to Asia and Australia, the plants are part of the Polypodiaceae family—they grow slowly, but end up being quite large and impressive once mature. There are 17 species of Platycerium, but only one, the staghorn fern, is truly common in home cultivation.
Staghorn ferns were once considered difficult to grow, but today they are quite popular. These ferns are epiphytic, which means they grow mounted on plaques or other substrates. They have two distinct leaf forms—small, flat leaves (known as shield fronds) that cover the root ball structure and take up water and nutrients and green, pronged antler fronds that emerge from this base and can reach up to three feet in length indoors (and larger in the wild).
|Botanical Name||Platycerium bifurcatum|
|Common Name||Staghorn fern, elkhorn fern|
|Mature Size||2–3 ft. tall, 2–3 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Partial shade|
|Hardiness Zones||9–12 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Asia, Australia|
If your Boston fern lives outdoors in hardiness zones 8b to 11, prepare them for winter temperatures by trimming the fronds, leaving only the newest sprouts. Don’t fertilize until spring and don’t move them unless it's to follow the sun. Move them gradually so they acclimatize to the new location. Springtime should be the start of new growth, and regular maintenance can be introduced gradually.
Several fern varieties flourish in cold weather, and they are known as hardy ferns. The western sword fern (Polystichum munitum) is accustomed to life in the cold forests of Alaska, and it lives in hardiness zones 3 to 8, where temperatures range from -40F to 20F. It’ll survive the cold without any attention from you. The northern Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), hardy in zones 3 to 9, puts up with all manner of weather as well as the animals and pests roaming during the cold winter months.
Other hardy cold-weather ferns include the Northern Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum), and it can grow in a container or in the ground and thrives in hardiness zones 3 to 8. For winter color in your garden, choose the autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) to enjoy its red-to-bronze-to green kaleidoscope of colors that change throughout the seasons. Both grow successfully in partial to full shade.
A versatile writer, Jann enjoys research as well as doing the actual writing. A career in television writing, as a magazine editor and celebrity interviewer, Jann adapts to her environment, having traveled the world, living overseas and packing and unpacking her treasures for a new location over 30 times.