Good to Grow: Going stag this Valentine’s Day with staghorn ferns

Want a conversation piece? Try a staghorn fern. It’s a stately and handsome plant that is surprisingly easy to grow.

My staghorn came from a friend who has a knack for finding and giving interesting gifts. I knew of male deer stags, stag parties, even going stag, but a fern? I was instantly in love and couldn’t wait to learn more about this plant.

Staghorn ferns are epiphytes, or air plants, that grow hanging on trees or other plants in their native tropical environment. In these tropical settings, they can grow to be massive plants attached to the crook of a tree. The plant absorbs nutrients from the trees through their fronds.

What is a frond? Fern leaves are called fronds and the staghorn has two types of fronds. The first, or antler fronds, are the large green forked leaves that come from the center of the plant. This is where the staghorn fern gets its name, because the leaves resemble deer antlers. Spores develop on these antler fronds and can look like brown fuzz. Resist the urge to remove them, let them stay as part of the plant.

The second frond is the shield frond. These are pretty cool. The round plate-like leaves (or shields) grow at the base of the plant and absorb nutrients and water. I have never seen anything quite like them and am still amazed by how they grow. The shields start out green, but as the plant ages they will turn brown and dry up.

Don’t worry. This is natural and part of the plant’s growing cycle. As the shields on my staghorn began to turn, I panicked and did a quick Google search; phew, I was instantly relieved. A brown shield doesn’t mean the plant is dying. Despite their appearance the dried fronds should not be removed. They are still doing what any good shield does, protecting and providing support for the plant.

I chose to plant my stag in a pot with very loose airy soil. You could also plant them in a wire basket or wire frame with sphagnum moss. Often, in magazines you will see these ferns planted in burlap and mounted to a wooden board. When hung on a wall they make quite a statement.

Because stag ferns are epiphytes, they will thrive with their roots having good air circulation and very little soil. If you decide to mount your fern, don’t trim the shield frond as it grows. Just add to the wood mounting frame, creating a bigger base. For the record, this fern is the only type of stag I recommend mounting. There are no mounted deer heads at the little house on the big hill.

When giving or growing your own staghorn fern, keep in mind, this is a plant that with minimal care will mature to a “staggering” old age. It is common for these plants to grow for 20 to 30 years.

This fern is a tropical plant that likes humidity (don’t forget to mist) but not a lot of water. Once a week watering is a good rule of thumb. If the tips of the leaves begin to turn brown, give it a bit more water. If the bottom of the leaves start to change color, the plant may be getting too much moisture, so stretch the time between watering.

This is good advice for all house plants. The amount of water any plant needs depends on the temperature of your room, the amount of sunlight, and size of your plant. You will have to experiment with what works best for each plant in your home.

Although tropical, the staghorn fern does not like direct sun. Remember, this plant grows on trees, which means the shelter of the leaves provide shade and create indirect sun. During the summer months I keep my stag on a covered deck. It’s happy there. Inside for the colder months, I have it near, but not directly in front of a window. So far so good.

It’s always this time of year that I begin to worry about my indoor/outdoor plants. They have been inside for months, living without a natural breeze or visits from friendly outside creatures. They, the plants, are like me and the pup — we begin to get cabin fever and long for days spent outside.