Monday, August 25, 2008

Staghorn Ferns as Houseplants in NYC

The curled, more rigid feel to the leaves of this staghorn fern in the office implies that it is not in as humid an environment as it would like, but regular misting and watering are certainly helping to keep it going.

i'm a big fan of your blog. i'm a patio/indoor gardener and have recently become rather obsessed with ferns - my boyfriend (who's a landscaper and gardener as well) gave me a staghorn fern as a gift. i have been googling the fern and have read some contrasting advice (it loves bright light, it should be in a shady spot; don't over water and even allow it to slightly wilt so you know you aren't OR always keep the soil evenly damp). Since it's a gift i really want to keep it alive - it's also such a beautiful plant that i would hate to be responsible for killing it.

SO. here's the deal - the fern is rather large and it came in a six inch plastic hanging pot. i have read that i should transplant it into a hanging wire basket lined with sphagnum moss and hang the plant sideways and growth will come out of all sides. would you agree with that? should i line it with the moss and then add peat and then the fern? (also something i read).

in terms light -- my gut instinct with all ferns is to give them part shade. none of my windows get direct bright light but rather i have three big windows with varying levels: bright indirect, medium indirect and low indirect - it is currently in the medium indirect. my patio gets direct light and part of it is always in the shade. would you recommend i keep the fern outside until fall - before any danger of frost?

watering -- always damp? also: would you recommend misting the plant since it like humidity? or is misting pointless?

i think that's about it. please let me know if you have any questions and i really, really appreciate your help with this.

A staghorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum) is without question a beautiful and unusual plant, and I personally think they are fabulous. However, I am very glad that you both have plenty of plant growing experience because you will need it as they are not necessarily the easiest houseplant out there. In fact, some books outright say these plants are not suitable for the home, but I think you can prove them wrong. Let me share with you what I know from my experience with them, both in greenhouses and in the home, as well as refer to some great houseplant books we have here in the HSNY Library. Your fern will be a little particular, but with the right care I think you should be able to keep it going for plenty of years to come.

Your fern will produce two types of leaves as it grows. The sterile fronds will be produced at the base of the plant and mature from green to brown. In its natural environment these fronds would adhere themselves to the larger tree branch the fern would be living on, eventually pulling nutrients from the organic matter that would collect between the two organisms. Transplanting it into a wire or wooden (orchid) basket with sphagnum moss is what I would do. Because it is a naturally epiphytic plant the moss should hold enough moisture at the base of the plant between when you water. I would transplant the fern oriented as you want it because the sterile fronds will naturally grown down and around the base of the plant (and the sphagnum moss) as the fertile fronds will continue to grow upright and out in search of light and humidity. My gut instinct is that the extra step of incorporating the peat moss is not necessary, but if it is in a peat-heavy mix now then that might help the transition to be as smooth as possible. I actually bought one mostly in peat moss one time and transplanted it into sphagnum moss soon after getting it. It definitely went through a little shock and stress (granted it was also adapting to my light and humidity) but it survived and I think was happier in the long run being in the sphagnum. I wonder if you might want to keep it in the plastic for a bit longer to make sure it is acclimated to the light and humidity of your place before transplanting, but that is probably me being too conservative.

Light is one of those issues where we have to remember that we live in the city with light levels that are uniquely different than if we were in the country. I would think it would be happiest in as sunny a spot as you can get it. Especially if you received it as a pretty mature plant, I’m guessing it was getting a lot of light in the greenhouse where it was raised. One of my favorite references recommends bright light with some direct sun and that sounds pretty right on to me. When I helped care for staghorn ferns up at NYBG when I was a student they were kept in a house that got a flood of bright, barely diffused light, and they loved it. Here in my office I have one that actually gets a good shot of direct morning sun and I was fearing it might be too much, but the plant is holding up well. If we were in the country I would say otherwise, that some shade would be good, but here we are often searching to find sunlight for our plants before we are searching to find them shade. As far as the debate between inside versus outside, I would try and figure out which area will have higher humidity and stick it there. If you put it outside do not let the nighttime temperature get much below 65 before pulling it inside. It sounds to me like the medium indirect or bright indirect perches inside would be suitable.

Once you have your fern situated in the sphagnum moss I think you should only have to water it about once a week, the same routine as you might water orchids. In addition, once a month or so I would give it a real good drench, even submerge the base of the plant in water for a few minutes, and then let it drain. This can also be a good time to incorporate a light fertilizing, which should be done once a month during the summer months but not so much in the darker seasons. Watering from the base will be a good practice because too much water at the base of the fertile fronds can lead them to get too waterlogged and fall off, and you definitely do not want to lose leaves as staghorn ferns are slow growers. If the plant dries out a little bit between watering that is fine.

I am glad you brought up misting and humidity because this is really the most important thing when it comes to keeping a staghorn fern alive in the home. They require a lot of regular humidity, and drying out too much can be the ultimate downfall of the plant (trust me – I know!). In a greenhouse setting staghorn ferns do great because they get the 60% humidity (or higher) all the time which is ideal. At home I keep mine in the bathroom, where the light and humidity are ample, but even then I mist it occasionally, especially if we have been away for a few days. Here in our office I am always misting the staghorn fern and it seems like I can never do that enough. Again, I try to mist regularly but prevent lots of water from collecting at the base of the fertile fronds. What can I say, I know the plant is a little bit drier than it would prefer, but it is holding on and looking good.

The only other thing that comes to mind is the waxy coating on the surface of the fertile green leaves. That waxy coating helps the plant to retain more moisture in its leaves so do not attempt as some do to clean the leaves and remove it. If some gets wiped off when you transplant that is not the end of the world by any means. It sounds like you know plant care enough not to do that, but worth the quick mention regardless.

I guess the long and the short of it is that you simply can’t forget or neglect a staghorn fern as a houseplant. But if I can keep one alive in a dry office setting then I am sure yours will be just fine once you get it more situated and on a regular regiment. Good luck and let me know how it works out for you.

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