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Garden: The spectacular staghorn

These ferns are a treasure that offers greenery worth a pot of gold; the epiphytes' beauty and slow growth rate make them expensive to purchase, but also tempting to plant nappers.

Published May 6, 2006

Whoever said that money doesn't grow on trees? If you've got a staghorn fern growing on a tree trunk or branch or hanging from a large branch of a shade tree, you've struck it rich. Large staghorns sell for hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. These distinctive tropical wonders are so precious that the homeowners who grow them fear thieves will steal them in the night. They're happy to share advice on growing staghorns but not their identities or whereabouts.

Of the thousands of ferns that grow worldwide, the staghorn (Platycerium) is truly one of the most unusual and interesting. Originating from the rainforests of Southeast Asia, Australia, Africa and South America, this humidity- and shade-loving fern is an epiphyte, or air plant. That means it will thrive in a loose, well-drained medium such as sphagnum moss, tree fern fiber or leaf mold. Never plant it in the ground or in a soil-packed container.

There are many species of staghorn fern, but the easiest to grow include the dark-green Platycerium bifurcatum, P. vassei, P. hillii, and the silver-hued P. veitchii. It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between varieties, so always ask for the botanic name at the garden center.

Plants for sale are usually grown in wire baskets lined with sphagnum moss or are mounted on cypress boards or cork. Prices vary, but a small starter plant with just a frond or two can easily cost $25 or more. Baby plants in cell packs can be bought on eBay for about $20 each, where one advertiser suggests you can "triple your money" after three to four months' growth.

Aptly named for its large, broad, antler-shaped fronds, the staghorn fern has an unusual growth habit. Flat, round, thick fronds at the base of the plant grow in layers to cup the roots and store water and nutrients. The irregular, antler-shaped leaves extending out and sometimes upright from the plant catch water, fallen leaves and other organic debris that will feed the plant.

Growing a staghorn - which is virtually pest- and disease-free - is easy, as long as it's placed in the right location, home gardeners say. The plant prefers partial to full shade and should never be placed in the scorching sun. When mounted on a board, it's ideal on a shady patio or wall. Even better, mount one on a tree trunk with sphagnum moss and strips of old pantyhose. Or hang a basket from a large branch, and the plant will grow as if in its original habitat.

The University of Florida recommends watering staghorns once or twice a week, especially during warm weather and drought. Very large ferns won't need as much water as smaller plants. Regardless of size, it's important to let the rooted medium dry slightly between waterings to prevent fungus marked by black spots on fronds.

Feed your staghorn time-release fertilizer pellets or organic fish emulsion, or do what one St. Petersburg gardener swears by: Toss banana peels up into the plant's base for an organic snack high in potassium. Don't overdo the feedings, however, and fertilize only during the growing season, experts say.

Our climate is ideal for growing staghorns, but on occasional winter nights when temperatures are near freezing, it's a good idea to protect your plant with a sheet or other cover.

Although it's a slow grower, your staghorn fern can become enormous - more than 4 feet wide and well over 75 pounds. Give your plant plenty of room to grow, and you'll count your staghorn among the riches of the garden.

Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a master gardener for Pinellas County.

[Last modified May 6, 2006, 06:38:14]

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