Platycerium Ferns: Why I Love Them + Care Tips Growing Staghorn ferns indoors (in low humidity)

In Houseplants & Tropicals
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Platycerium ferns—the Staghorns—look like some sort of tropical savage cabbage from the Devonian period. They’re exotic, dynamic, and the leaves have a lot of texture (some fuzzy, some bumpy, some like waffles, others with ridges). There are types that get enormous, but even the “smaller” ones make for a really spectacular statement plant in your home.  Staghorn ferns also have this dual growth style and produce two different types of leaves. One, the lower frond or shield looks like a half clam shell—which reaches out and up, encasing whatever the plant is growing on; and the second, the “fertile frond,” projects out adjacent the shield, more like you’d expect from a classic plant leaf, but it forks creating that characteristic stag horn look. Together, they just look really unique. Some types have nearly white leaves, others have leaves that look like big chunks of kelp. Compared to other plants, they really stand and it’s apparent why there are plant collectors that specialize exclusively in Platycerium.

Photo of an enormous Platycerium – Grown in Bali

Staghorn ferns are epiphytic plants (meaning they grow attached to trees or on tree branches), and are found in parts of SE Asia, Africa, Australia and there’s even a single species native to South America (Platycerium andinum). What’s surprising though…they’re not actually that hard to grow—and I’ve been able to grow mine in room humidity along side my aroids and orchids. I’ve heard similar accounts from multiple other growers here in my home town and across America. They like bright indirect mid-day light. Direct early morning or late evening sun is probably alright too because they naturally grow more exposed in the upper forest canopy, and will need more light compared to many other tropical plants. There are species that like hot temps (for you equatorial growers) and some cool-growing species (that will tolerate cool indoor Canadian winter temps). To be clear though…they’re tropical plants and will not tolerate freezing.

I want to write a really full-form care guide to set you up for success (because I find a lot of the current information is pretty one-dimensional), but I don’t have enough breadth of experience to give all-encompassing advice for all types of platy. I’ve only grown one Platycerium—a hybrid called Platycerium Durval Nunes (which is a hybrid of P. madagascariense, a rare cool-growing species from Madagascar). I’m still going to summarize my advice, but take this post more as a hype machine to get you thinking about Platycerium ferns, and thumb through my experiential care tips to see if a Staghorn fern might be a good fit for you.

Photo of my Platycerium the day it arrived

 

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Platycerium / Staghorn Fern Care Tips

  • Hydration: In my opinion this is the most important aspect of long term successful platycerium care. It comes down to two components: 1) water quality (purity); and 2) consistent hydration over a long period of time. Obviously, they grow well in a greenhouse where the humidity is high, but if your an indoor grower, here’s what you should know:
    • Staghorn ferns are slow growing plants. To keep one alive for many years (the big ones are often over a decade old), you have to avoid harsh dehydration at all cost. If you let the roots go bone dry in a dry climate, you could risk killing the fern entirely. This rule applies to most ferns and from my perspective the fastest way to kill any fern is to let the roots go bone dry—the damage is often irreversible.
    • I mentioned that Platycerium are epiphytes right? That means they’re very well adapted to rain water, which is very pure, clean, and has low total dissolved salts (TDS). It means they’re often intolerant of tap water. Ferns, compared to any plant I’ve ever grown, are the most intolerant of mineral buildup in the root area. That means if you want to grow a platy well…I wouldn’t use tap water unless your tap water is below 50ppms TDS. For best success…use distilled, rain water, or reverse osmosis.
    • My Watering Method (and My Potting Method): I use an adapted method of watering that utilizes semihydro, with a top-layer of sphagnum, and I mist the leaves once a week. The bottom 30% of the pot is LECA and sits in shallow tray of water, and the top 66% is pure sphagnum moss. I mound the sphagnum so it gets lots of airflow, and I still soak the moss once a week to keep the plant well hydrated. However, the moss never goes bone dry because the semihydro method uses passive irrigation to draw water up from the try below, into the moss. This keeps the roots somewhat moist even as the moss approaches dryness. Initially, when new plants are potted, it’s better to keep the moss more consistently moist near the base of the plant (to allow roots to establish)—that can take about 2-4 months—and misting the moss every couple days can help. Later, you can be less careful as long as the roots don’t go bone dry and you keep the reservoir topped up.
    • Rot is common: beware, Platycerium have a reputation for getting rot and if you keep them too wet for too long, or don’t have enough airflow, this can cause problems as a result of anaerobic conditions. With my humidity being low, my method of moss on semihydro keeps the roots evenly moist, but it’s rarely soaking wet (other than on watering day).
  • Potting Media & Methods: I mentioned I am using sphagnum on top of LECA to keep the roots moist. However, there are many ways to grow Platies. The most common is mounted – which may be challenging indoors if you don’t want water damage on your walls. I have seen growers adapt potted methods too – some grow in peat-perlite mixes, others in bark-sphagnum mixes with tilted pots, but the main thing (regardless of the method you choose), is to try and keep the roots moist—not wet and not bone dry. Your climate will greatly influence how easy this is for you, but in my dry climate, mounting is not an option unless I want to water every day. Check out these photos from growers around the world for examples of the other potting methods:
    Platycerium Method 1: Mounted

     

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    Platycerium Method 2: Suspended in Air

     

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    Platycerium Method 3: Potted

     

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  • Light: I already mentioned, they do best with bright and indirect light, but they can also tolerate lower light levels. A brightly-lit room with lots of natural light would be sufficient, but your plant may grow even slower. Mine grows in front of an East-facing window where it gets direct sun in the morning AND artificial light from grow lights in the afternoon. I consider the light in this area very bright—it’s where I grow my Monstera Burle Marx’s Flame and Philodendron spiritus-sancti which are both higher-light aroids. If you’re a PAR junky, I’m talking 220–660PAR, which is the equivalent of about 10–30% direct filtered sun, or 1,000–3,000 footcandles. Given their growth in the upper canopy, I wouldn’t be surprised if some species could take upwards of 50% sun…but direct, mid-day sun at full power will likely burn the leaves (which is irreversible), so use caution as you find the right spot for your plant.
  • Fertilizer: We already covered that they’re intolerant of mineral buildup, but you still need to fertilize your Platycerium—it’s especially important if your plant is large and needs to pump out those gigantic leaves in one swift action. I follow a two-prong approach to fertilizing my plant:
    • Weakly/bi-weekly: I use orchid fertilizer (MSU brand) at 1/4 strength every other watering. Orchid fertilizer is mostly nitrate based and has an array of micronutrients fit for epiphytic plants. When I do my weekly leaf spray, I saturate the leaves to the point that the fertilizer-water beads and collects, and then I leave it. This gives the leaves time to absorb water and nutrients. I also spray the moss down at this time. You should know though: my humidity is below 50% so I am not worried about water on leaves causing rot; however, if your humidity is over 60%, make sure you have LOTS of air movement because water sitting between the fronds can be a point of fungal infection.
    • 3 times a year and when repotting I use organic fertilizer which has a general nutrient ratio of 10-3-3. I use a product called Gaia Green All Purpose Organic Fertilizer, and I cut it with 50% Bloodmeal (which is…blood and high in nitrogen and iron).

Platycerium Durval Nunes (stemaria x madagascariense)

My plant is a primary hybrid of two species. The second, P. madagascariense is a cool-growing species that is known to be quite challenging. However, hybrids are often less fussy than their parent species are and I’ve found it easy to grow. I’ve included a photo timeline of my plant at the end of this post if you want to see it. Platycerium stemaria is an African species that gets moderately large and has leaves over 3 feet long. Platycerium madagascariense is a wildly-cool-looking species from Madagascar—the shields or lower leaves get a waffle-like texture and it is the most unique looking Platycerium species. It’s also the smallest species topping out at about 22″ long leaves. Together, the two species blend to make a really unique hybrid, Platycerium Durval Nunes, which keeps some of that waffle-like pattern and overall more compact size.

Photo of Platycerium Durval Nunes – by Carlos Tatsuta

Photo of parent species Platycerium madagascariense

 

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Photo Timeline of my Plant

– Platycerium Durval Nunes –
Freshly Watered Platycerium – the leaves normally look dry, but when I water…I also take photos – Nov 5, 2022

New frond developing – Sept–Oct, 2022

 

Freshly Repotted – Aug 9, 2022

 

The day my Platycerium arrived – Aug 9, 2022