OF THE WEEK
Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department
Staghorn fern, Elk’s horn
fern, Antelope ear
Scientific name: Platycerium species
Explanation of scientific name:
- the Greek word for broad-horn
The 17 species of
Staghorn ferns represent one of the most unusual groups of ferns.
The leaves of many of the members of the Staghorn genus (Platycerium)
are antler-like in appearance rather than like a typical fern’s foliage.
Once seen, it becomes apparent why the common names and the scientific
name for this group are most appropriate.
Staghorns have just
about a worldwide natural distribution. For example, Platycerium
bifurcatum comes from Eastern Australia, New Guinea, and New
Caledonia; Platycerium andinum
is native to Peru and Bolivia; Platycerium
alcicorne is found in Madagascar; and Platycerium grande
originates from Australia, Singapore, and the Philippines.
While mostly tropical, a few species can tolerate cold weather.
the most common species imported into this country, can tolerate temperatures as
low as 15oF.
Besides their unusual
shape, Staghorns occupy an uncommon habitat.
They do not grow rooted into the ground, they are instead epiphytes -
they “grow upon others”. Commonly
found on trunks of trees or in the crotches of limbs, Staghorns use these plants
for support, but are not parasites and do not draw any nutrition from their
hosts. For nutrition and moisture,
the Staghorns rely on leaves falling from above to decay into humus, and
frequent rainfall. They are
perfectly adapted to their habitat since they thrive on a loose, light, humus
soil, that is well drained and never remains water saturated for any significant
length of time.
Like all other ferns,
the Staghorns produce no flowers, fruits, or seeds.
They reproduce themselves primarily by spores, which are single-celled
reproductive units that are produced on the undersides of leaves.
These spores are released and carried by the wind.
Some fall on a suitable location, perhaps hundreds of feet above the
ground in a tree, and begin the next generation of Staghorns that will
ultimately grow into mature plants. Staghorns
also can reproduce by means of “pups”.
Mature plants produce small but intact plantlets (pups) that can detach
from the parent plant, and fall to take root somewhere below, often on the same
Unlike other ferns, most
Staghorns have 2 kinds of leaves or fronds.
One of these is the sterile leaf, which is shield or dish shaped.
It is called sterile because it does not produce spores.
Each sterile leaf, as it grows, clasps the support on which it is found.
Initially green, they turn brown and become parchment-like with age.
Besides holding the plant in place, the spaces between the layers of
sterile leaves accumulate water and dead decaying vegetation, supplying moisture
and humus to the plant.
The other leaf type is
the fertile leaf. It is erect or
spreading and mostly antler-forked. It remains green at maturity, to carry on photosynthesis to
provide nutrition for the plant. It
is called fertile because it produces spores, found mostly at or towards the
ends of the antlers. The white,
dust-like material that is visible on the leaves is actually hair projecting
from the leaf surface. These
star-shaped (stellate) hairs are thought to inhibit moisture loss from the leaf
Staghorns make hardy and
long-lived houseplants, as long as one recognizes their natural requirements and
duplicates them as best as possible. They thrive if attached to a plaque along with some humus.
They should be watered frequently, letting them dry slightly between
waterings. They enjoy very bright
light but not full sun. While individual staghorns have been known to reach several
hundred pounds in weight, the indoor gardener should not worry about this
happening under household conditions.
A Staghorn fern, growing in one of Union County College's greenhouses.