Staghorn ferns

With their unique outlines, the staghorn ferns are in a class all by themselves. Wherever available, and sometimes when not so available (making them all the more desirable), they have attracted an ardent support group devoted to their culture and definition. In nature they are epiphytes and in cultivation they hang from assorted structures as outdoor greenery in Southern California, Florida, and wherever else they can be protected from the elements. Indoors they are prized in homes and especially in conservatories where ancient specimens are dominant features, peering like trophies from walls and hanging their curious foliage from focal vantage points.

Structurally, platyceriums (Greek platy, broad, and keras, horned) are extremely dimorphic. They have two frond types, a "shield frond," which is essentially a spongy, usually non-showy, but functional foot that provides ballast and attaches wherever appropriate, be it on trees in nature or, in cultivation, the grower's choice of background support. Youthfully, it is green, but in maturity can be a single or several times divided papery tan "shield." In areas of low rainfall these "shields" lean forward from their arboreal perches and act as receptacles for moisture and nutrients. In high-rainfall areas they close up to prevent damage from an over accumulation of water. From this foothold great wings of potentially fertile "antlerlike" fronds extend upwards, but more often drape downwards, in species-specific, multifingered configurations. Pale, star-shaped hairs coat the foliage like soft fuzz and, when fertile, the frond tips are cloaked in a spotty undercoat of brown sporangia patches looking like random smudges. The sori are without indusia. Plants can be grown, given time, from spores, but are best propagated by the careful removal of "pups," which are produced from buds on the roots of a number of species.

Culturally, the commonly available staghorns are regarded as somewhat finicky houseplants for the inexperienced or, for the specialists, incredibly easy. Rarely available species can be very demanding in their cultural needs and are best left for the skills of the seasoned expert. However, for both, watering is critical and not to be overdone. For an indicator, simply touch the shield frond. If it oozes, do not add to the accumulated hydraulics. Let the frond dry. I repeat here, as again and again throughout these chapters, that most indoor fern mortalities are due to excessive watering. Give these especially water-sensitive species bright light, an occasional drink (unless otherwise noted), and very lean soil. Attach them to a vertical mount. For efficient and thorough watering, when required, experts recommend a trip to and dip in the bathtub followed by drip-drying. Most staghorns are not frost tolerant but can be rotated without stress from indoors to out as a display of hanging ornamentals in the temperate summer garden or wherever benign weather gives them comfort.

Worldwide, there are 18 species with all but one, a South American, growing in the tropics of Africa and Asia. For assistance in identification, Hoshizaki and Moran (2001) divided them into three groups based on areas of origin and several distinguishing features including stipe design and root bud production. The Malayan-Asiatic species have a stipe cross section with a dark ring of tissue surrounding vascular bundles arranged in a circle, which include scattered bundles within the circle. Platycerium coronarium, P. grande, P. holt-tumii, Pridleyi, P. superbum, P. wallichii, and P. wandae are in this group. They do not produce buds. African-American species have the same vascular bundle configuration without a dark ring of tissue. These include P. alcicorne, P. andinum, P elephantotis, P. ellisii, P. madagascariense, P. quadridichoto-mum, and P. stemaria. They do produce buds. Javan-Aus-tralian species do not have a dark ring or inner bundles. They also produce buds. Platycerium bifurcatum, P. hillii, P. veitchii, and P. willinckii are in this group.

Platycerium alcicorne (elk horned) has erect masses of linear fertile fronds, which split into numerous fingers. The sori are at the ultimate tips. It is one of the easier species for cultivation.


Platycerium alcicorne in production at Henry's Plant Farm. Note precautions against overwatering.

Platycerium andinum (from the Andes), the American staghorn, has bushy upright shield fronds and long, drooping fertile fronds that are broad at their base, then divided. It is difficult and especially sensitive to overwatering.

Platycerium bifurcatum (divided into equal parts) is the most commonly available and culturally adaptable staghorn. Although quite variable, it typically has forking fronds that are often both arching and pendant. Large plants form a spidery mass of foliage.

Platycerium coronarium (forming a crown) is a staghorn fern typical of the others in the genus in possessing, to my eyes, a horrific magnificence, the plant kingdom's equal of Louie the Sun King in his most hyacinthine portrait. Like other staghorns, this species grows as an epiphyte on primary forest trees. It ranges widely in tropical Asia, where it forms the usual upward-growing staghorn headdress (or "shield" as I read in more proper writing on ferns), and the usual beardlike drap

Platycerium Ridleyi

ery of narrow, curly green straps for fronds. These are said to grow to 9 ft. (2.7 m) in length, but I have yet to see them more than half that. (Description by George Schenk.)

Platycerium elephantotis (of the elephants), the Angola staghorn, has entire fronds ribbed with veins and looking to me (and perhaps the author of the name) like giant elephant ears. It needs an abundance of water while in new growth, but not while inactive in winter. It is cold sensitive.

Platycerium ellisii (after Ellis) is small (by Platycerium standards) with shiny shield fronds and upright V-tipped fronds looking like tulips in silhouette. It is considered challenging to grow.

Platycerium grande (large, showy) is, true to name, a huge beauty with a broad expanse of lacerated foliage. It is similar to, and often confused with, P. superbum but has two patches of sporangia per frond rather than one. In addition it is cold sensitive whereas P. superbum is one of the few that will tolerate a touch of frost.

Platycerium hillii (after Walter Hill, 1820-1904, superintendent of the Brisbane Botanic Gardens in Australia), the green staghorn, is an easily cultivated species with rounded rather than pointed tips on the fertile fronds.

Platycerium holttumii (after Richard Holttum, 1895-1990, an outstanding contributor to Malaysian botany and pteri-dology) is a difficult giant with upright shield fronds and claws of hanging fertile foliage. It is similar to P. wandaebut without fringed trim around the base. Good air circulation is strongly advised.

Platycerium madagascariense (from Madagascar) is, according to Platycerium specialist Charles Alford (pers. comm.), the most difficult species to keep alive and presentable in cultivation. The plants, with corridors of veins patterned like waffles, are hosts to ants that in turn surround themselves with unfriendly insect pals. V-shaped slightly fringed fertile fronds hang with sporangia-trimmed lower margins. Plants need to be especially warm.

Platycerium quadridichotomum (forking four times) is a rarely available and challenging species in cultivation. The sterile shield fronds, looking like giant feet, are upright with pendant, forked, fertile fronds falling away from their heels. The plant reportedly appears dead if allowed to dry out and consequently curl during its dormant season, but does revive.

Platycerium ridleyi (after Sir Henry Ridley, 1855-1956, botanical explorer and director of the Botanic Gardens of Singapore) is another on the list of cultivation-resistant staghorns. More than most species, it is a victim of rot and is popular with insect pests, including colonies of ants that choose its structure for their nest building. The fertile fronds grow upright from helmet-style shield fronds and look like

Platycerium coronarium established on a stonewall, in morning sun and afternoon shade, where it is held by hidden wires attached to concrete nails driven into mortar between the stone. The wall is old and fertile, allowing other ferns such as Christella dentata (near the top of the scene) to have grown here from spores that found lodging in the built-up humus. Photo by George Schenk.

waving happy hands or the round-tipped antlers seen on stuffed toy animals.

Platycerium stemaria (an old name for staghorn) has triangularly lobed fertile fronds that spread like sails from base fronds that look like bedroom slippers. It is cold sensitive and needs extra heat as well as dry conditions for an optimal appearance.

Platycerium superbum (magnificent), the giant staghorn, is, for many reasons, one of the very best for both beginners and expert admirers. Handsome and bold shield fronds reach upwards in broad, outward-extending fans ready to collect moisture and nourishment for its fertile components. Swoops of fertile fronds arch and then drop hands and multiple fingers of foliage with, significantly, one fertile portion per frond (unlike the similar, but less cold hardy P. grande, which has two per frond). It is the most cold tolerant of the tribe, surviving freezing temperatures, albeit briefly. In turn it is also forgiving of extended periods of drought. Mind you, it is big, so place it accordingly or be prepared to accommodate its presence by moving some furniture.

Platycerium veitchii (for British nurseryman John Veitch, 1839-1870), silver staghorn, has upright torches of lovely soft gray fronds with slender stalks and poly-forked-tipped wands. They are vertical in bright light and will taper downwards in shade. The woolly surface protects the fronds in their unfern-like, native Australian habitats where they grow in full exposure on the faces of sunny cliffs. Cultivate them in comparable sites where they welcome bright light and minimum moisture and tolerate cold, but not freezing weather.

Platycerium wallichii (after Nathaniel Wallich, 1786-1854, a Danish physician-botanist who studied plants of India), Indian staghorn, is a giant fern with a reputation as a short-lived and difficult-to-cultivate species. Broad fertile fronds with upward and outward prongs spray from a circular base frond. It is the only species in the genus with green spores.

Platycerium wandae (after Wanda), the queen staghorn, with a foliar expanse of 6 to 7 ft. (about 2 m) across is the largest of a genus already crowded with super-sized species. Protective, outer, winglike fronds surround the pendant fertile fronds that hang like loose shrouds with tasseled tips. Sturdy, upright shield fronds have pups that are fringed at their edges, distinguishing this species from the rarer but somewhat similar P. holttumii.It is cold sensitive and needs water only when in active growth.

Platycerium willinckii, Java staghorn, has long outward-arching fountains of straplike fertile fronds that split into multiple cattails midway down their descent. Emerging fertile fronds extend as uprights from their large shield fern support structure, but when weighted by maturity are carried gradually downwards with an outward flow. Some authors classify this as a cultivar of P. bifurcatum although it is not as cold tolerant.

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