Six on Saturday- W12/2021 – Staghorns and Elkhorns

In a previous post, SoS – W10/2021, I mentioned that I had been given a large elkhorn fern, Platycerium bifurcatum, and that I had divided it up into a number of individual plants. This post generated a lot of interest and I decided to do this week’s Six on Saturday on the elkhorn and staghorn ferns.

1. Platycerium bifurcatum, elkhorn ferns, are native to Java, Papua New Guinea and to the Eastern coastal regions of Australia. They are much smaller than the staghorn fern, Platycerium Superbum, and consists of a mass of plantlets growing together. This can be clearly seen in the photo below of the elkhorn that I was given.

A cluster of plantlets of the elkhorn fern, Platycerium bifurcatum

2. Propagation. Ferns can be propagated from spores, or by subdivision. In the case of the large clump of fern I was given, I used a hand-saw to cut through the thick layers of nest fronds (leaves) to divided up the clump. I ensured that each green growth point had an area around it defined by the brown nest fronds extending in a circle around each green growth point/node. New nest fronds are green while the older ones are brown. These nest fronds are sterile, while the forked fronds that hang downwards are fertile and produce spore. Where a fern is attached to a tree, individual plants can be removed by inserting a sharp knife under the nest fronds and prying the plantlets free. In the photo below the layers of dried nest fronds can be clearly seen. The old nest fronds are able to retain a lot of moisture for the plant.

Nest fronds clearly visible in cross section

3. Substrate. It is important to have a suitable substrate available to attach the new plants to. Suitable substrates include a log, a tree, wood, a plastic wall pot, even polystyrene! After separating the plantlets I removed some of the oldest dry nest fronds to make it easier to attach the plantlets to the substrate. The plantlets can be attached using fishing line, cotton twine or soft strips of material. The picture below shows how a staghorn fern was attached to a slice of a tree trunk using fishing twine. The new nest fronds will eventually cover the material used to secure the plantlets.

Slice of wood used as substrate and showing how the staghorn fern is attached to the wood using fishing line

4. Baby plants. Spores from mature plants are small and light, and are wind distributed. These spores adhere to damp surfaces and develop into tiny ferns. In the photo below, the moss-covered low retaining wall provides a suitable substrate for the tiny spores of the staghorn fern to grow.

Young staghorn ferns

5. Platycerium superbum, the staghorn fern, is native to the low lying rainforests of Queensland and New South Wales. The staghorn ferns are much larger and entirely different in structure to the elkhorn ferns. In staghorns the nest fronds above the growing node are large and extend up and outwards to trap falling organic matter such as leaves, and rain, thereby providing nutrients for the plant. The fertile antler fronds hang downwards, and at certain times of the year they will produce brown spores, as shown in the photo below.

Staghorn fern showing the sterile nest fronds and the fertile antler fronds

6. Comparison of P. bifurcatum and P. superbum. The following photo clearly shows the difference between the elkhorn and staghorn ferns in a side-by-side comparison. The central plant is probably an orchid. To the left is the staghorn, P. superbum, while P. bifurcatum, the elkhorn is to the right.

The following photo shows the elkhorn growing above the staghorn on this tree.

And sneaking in an extra photo, showing a number of staghorn ferns growing on a tree.

That is my Six for the week. I’m off to enjoy other Sixes via The Propagator. Links are provided in the comments section of his blog. Wishing you all a happy gardening week!

14 comments

  1. Fascinating, I only heard of staghorn ferns recently on a British radio programme, one of the panellists was recommending it as an unusual house plant, but I wonder if they would look as glorious indoors as they do attached to trees. Nice to learn something new, thanks for this interesting post!

  2. I have some good pictures of both of these from trips down under, mostly staghorn. There was a fabulous epiphytic version of what we know as tongue fern at Mount Mee, and another I really loved was a basket fern, Drynaria rigidula, growing over bare rocks. Very different from anything we have here.

    • They are all beautiful! When we moved in here I found an old basket fern under shrubs. I tried unsuccessfully to revive it. That is a fern that I want to get for the garden, and the other small epiphytic fern that grows naturally on trees around here. When it grows densely it looks amazing on trees. By the way, the bulb nursery I found, Hillview, no longer operates, unfortunately. They still show their last catalogue from 2018, but it was interesting to see what bulbs they could supply.

  3. It’s been a treat to read this blog – so interesting. I had no idea about any of this but those plants are just so beautiful. You’re so lucky to be able to grow them like that.

    • Thank you, Katharine. When I first saw them growing in the wild near the top of incredibly tall trees up at a place called Eungella National Park near Mackay in Queensland, I gasped in amazement! Since moving down to the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, I am now accustomed to seeing them every day, in the forest and in peoples gardens, yet still in awe of them. We also have lots of young staghorn ferns growing on various trees in the garden.

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