Staghorn fern was one of the first plants in my “home jungle” – a bit of the tropics in my own little New England apartment. It’s a weird-looking plant – it has the outward spiral pattern like other members of their family, but doesn’t have the same feathery, finely-toothed leaves its cousins do.
The leaves of the staghorn are dense and heavy with wide ruffles at the ends. The name rings true – the leaves of this plant look like the rack of a wild buck. Fun fact: in nature, they grow off the sides of trees and on logs, but they’ve adapted to growing in soil. To make growing this plant at home easier and more accessible, this is the growing method I’ll teach you about here.
If you’ve recently acquired one of these plants and feel clueless about caring for it like I did when I gleefully received one as a gift, fear not – they are easy to care for once you’ve learned the basics. They’re forgiving and long-lasting and survive dry spells rather well (but don’t let under-watering become a habit!)
I’m here to break down the care protocol for this funky-looking fern. It’s one of the coolest looking plants in my own collection, so I hope that, with a little care and know-how, you can learn to love this goofy-looking plant too.
“Staghorn fern, Bali museum” by Jnzl / CC BY 2.0
This little fella is a great example of one of these plants growing in the wild. Though they grow best when attached to trees, bringing staghorn ferns indoors and potting them is an easy option for newer plant owners – that’s how I keep mine.
Pick a Breathable Yet Cozy Pot
It’s best to give your fern just enough space – don’t plant it in a massive pot hoping it will grow to fill it. On the other hand, double check that your fern isn’t pot-bound, meaning that its roots don’t have enough room to breathe and absorb water.
Potting is a surprisingly tricky part of growing this tropical plant. When you first purchase a staghorn, it will likely be planted in a small, highly constrictive pot. You should immediately replant it in a larger pot that’s about 25% to 50% larger than the nursery container. Fill the pot up halfway with organic soil (my favorite brand is Coast of Maine), place the fern in (making sure to have shaken most of the old soil out of the root ball), and cover loosely with dirt.
Since this species is accustomed to growing on logs and trees where the roots are entirely exposed to air and rain, it’s important not to compact the soil tightly – this gives the roots breathing room. While some plants do well growing in packed soil (think root vegetables, corn, and wheat), this tropical beauty isn’t one of them. Use a gentle hand with this variety.
You don’t need a fancy setup to grow a healthy, strong staghorn. I replanted mine in this upcycled plastic pot a year or so ago and she’s loving life.
Place It in Dappled Sunlight
Staghorn ferns, like the rest of the members of their family, grow well in shady areas as well as areas with “dappled” sunlight (think sunlight that’s been filtered through the treetops). They can be found growing in moderate lighting in nature, so it’s best to try to imitate this sort of lighting in your own home.
For more information on how to find the best plant lighting in your house or apartment, take a look at this vlog from Harli G on Youtube.
Make sure to keep your staghorn out of direct sunlight – this will prevent scorching and dehydration. At the same time, you should still allow your plant to get some soft light. This will make sure that water absorbs properly and that they can photosynthesize.
Check out the soft lighting illuminating off these glossy young fronds. This fern is located slightly behind and underneath a skylight, which offers the ideal dappled light this plant loves.
Water Deeply on a Weekly Basis
Staghorns like a moderate amount of water – think once or twice a week. Don’t keep yourself on a strict schedule, though – be mindful of your plant’s individual needs. I find that mine needs more water in the summer (watering it about three times a week) and less in the winter (once a week).
If you’re not familiar with watering practices for houseplants, take a peek at this video from Planterina on Youtube.
The health and watering needs of your staghorn vary greatly according to your climate. If you live in cooler, damper climates, you’ll need to water it less frequently than someone who lives in an arid hot climate. If you’re forgetful about watering your plants, you might want to invest in some watering globes like these ones from Wyndham House.
Finally, make sure to soak the roots when watering, ensuring that you’re not just watering the top layer of the soil. Check that at least two inches of soil get moist. You can measure this by sticking your index finger into the pot and checking that the soil is wet up to the second knuckle. This will help your new fern grow at a healthy rate and keep it glossy and bright.