- DIVISION: Pteridophyta
- CLASS: Pteridopsida
- ORDER: Polypodiales
- FAMILY: Polypodiaceae
- GENUS: Platycerium
- SPECIES: bifurcatum
Because they lack a lacy appearance, many people don’t realize that staghorns are ferns! But these noble ferns have a lineage dating back to the days of the dinosaurs. In fact, some botanists believe that staghorns are a transition between ancient and modern ferns, because their basal frond stays intact even after their spore-bearing fronds have completed reproduction. The plant’s common name comes from the shape of those fertile fronds, which branch out to look like antlers.
Staghorn ferns are epiphytes, meaning that they grow on the branches of other plants. By using trees as hosts, they provide themselves with more light than the non-epiphytes that are restricted to the forest floor. But staghorns are not parasitic—they get their nourishment from the air and rain, not from their host plant.
The fronds are leathery in texture and have a thin, felt-like covering of white “hairs,” which is important for gathering moisture—if it’s rubbed off, the fronds tend to turn brown and shrivel. The spores are cinnamon colored and located on the underside of the branching frond tips.
These ferns produce two kinds of fronds: a round, flat, basal frond that appears to anchor the plant to a tree, and fronds that branch and grow out away from the trunk. As a staghorn grows, it produces layers of fronds, new ones growing over the older, brown, papery ones, to form a cylinder. This natural container catches water and debris, which becomes nutritious mulch for the fern.
Staghorn ferns thrive in light, airy places and do not like direct sun or deep shade. Water established plants only when they start to dry or wilt slightly; if they are kept too wet, they will eventually rot. The underlying base fronds hold a great deal of water in their spongy tissue, even though the surface ones may look and feel dry. If a little water leaks out when the brown base fronds are pressed, the plant is not in need of water.
The more common staghorn ferns produce buds or “pups.” These pups may be separated from the mother plant to produce new plants. The larger the pup, the greater the chances of survival. To separate, cut around them beneath the base fronds of the pup, taking some of the mother plant’s base fronds if necessary to obtain a layer about one inch thick. Fix a one- to two-inch pad of moss to the back of the pup, then place both on a suitable mount like a piece of wood board or driftwood, securing it with wire or strips of plastic.
The San Diego Zoo has a large collection of staghorn ferns. Look for them in Fern Canyon, Flamingo Lagoon, and in the Zoo’s large aviaries.