Staghorn ferns have always been eye-catching statement plants, and for good reason. Their interesting shape, antler-like fronds, and ability to be mounted to various surfaces truly make them living art! However, if your fern begins to look distressed, with drooping, wilted fronds or yellow and brown spots, what can you do to return it back to its former green, velvety glory?
Droopy, wilted, or discolored Staghorn fern fronds are a common side effect of improper care. Mismanaging how much water, light, humidity, and fertilizer your plant gets can result in fronds underperforming or turning yellow or brown. Usually, with a few care alterations, you can minimize or reverse these signs of distress.
Generally, a lot of work goes into growing, caring for, mounting, and displaying Staghorn ferns, so when you see discoloration or drooping fronds, it can be a little stressful. In most cases, however, these signs are the plant’s way of telling you something needs to change.
In this article, we’ll cover the most common reasons your Staghorn fern is turning yellow or brown, is wilting or drooping, or is dropping its fronds. At the end, we’ll cover some general care tips to help you avoid situations where your Staghorn starts exhibiting these distress signals in the first place.
A Little Bit About Staghorn Ferns
Staghorn ferns are a small group of epiphytic ferns native to Southeast Asia, Africa, and Australia. They all have fronds that resemble the antlers of elk or deer and have evolved to grow on other plants and trees.
As houseplants, Staghorn ferns are commonly mounted on a board with their rhizomes and roots bundled under some kind of binding with organic matter like sphagnum or peat moss. Smaller plants can be kept in a pot with very well-draining growing medium as a base for the plant to grown in.
These plants tend to thrive in warmer, humid climates with lots of bright, indirect light. They don’t like to be too wet or too dry, so keeping them evenly moist can sometimes be a chore. However, they have the ability to absorb water through their fronds, so misting them several times a week can help regulate their water needs and also adds humidity so they flourish.
Like many other types of houseplants, Staghorn ferns are affected by improper or insufficient care, so conditions like overwatering, underwatering, and misfeeding can induce stress, causing the plant to wilt or droop, while fronds can discolor to yellow or brown.
Environmental factors such as light exposure, temperature, and humidity also contribute to the plant’s overall health, so improper amounts of these factors can also contribute to the plant’s distress.
Why Is My Staghorn Fern Yellow?
For many houseplants, the arrival of yellowing leaves is a pretty classic distress signal caused by a few different care shortfalls. Staghorn ferns are no different. Since yellowing fronds can have multiple causes, be sure to observe other symptoms to help diagnose your fern’s condition.
In many cases, if you start seeing yellowing fronds on your Staghorn fern, the safe guess as to why would be overwatering. Like with so many other houseplants, overwatering can disrupt your fern’s ability to carry out many important functions, like nutrient uptake, gas exchange, and transpiration.
The resulting lack of nutrients can start to be seen as fronds begin to yellow near the base of the plant or spread across the basal frond. Yellowing caused by overwatering is often seen alongside general drooping of the plant’s fronds, since nutrient transport and water regulation are disrupted from the roots being waterlogged.
Too Much Light
If you are pretty confident you aren’t overwatering your Staghorn fern, the next thing to investigate would be where you have your plant placed in your home and how much light it receives throughout the day.
Because they evolved under dense forest canopies, Staghorn ferns adapted to utilize the bright, indirect light that filters down to the forest floor. Although they can handle a little bit of direct sun exposure, too much of it can dry these ferns out quickly and potentially damage the fronds in the process.
Too much direct light can cause sunburn on the fronds, resulting in yellow, brown, or even scaly black patches on exposed fronds. Because this often dries the plant and its root ball out, as well, you will often see wrinkled or wilted fronds accompanying the yellow color.
Although Staghorn ferns aren’t heavy feeders, they grow within a very small amount of organic matter, so fluctuations in nutrient availability can happen easily and tend to have an impact on the plant’s well being.
Yellowing caused by underfeeding usually happens at the base of the fronds, but unlike underwatering, you can often see the discoloration occuring along the veins within the leaf.
If you regularly fertilize your Staghorn fern, meaning at least once every few months, it is unlikely underfeeding is the cause of yellowing.
Why Is My Staghorn Fern Brown?
Yellowing fronds can be concerning enough, but if you start seeing brown discoloration on your Staghorn fern, think of it as your plant raising the alarm. Something is definitely wrong and requires your attention.
Again, one of the more likely scenarios is that you’ve been overwatering your plant. You may have missed the warning signs of yellowing leaves, or perhaps the plant skipped that step, but brown spots on wet plants often mean you are dealing with rot.
When a plant is consistently overwatered, the root system often becomes waterlogged in the growing medium, and it begins to lose function and rot away. This rot can spread very quickly and typically starts from the base of the plant and works its way upward.
Brown spots begin to appear from the base of the fronds and can present as a solid browning of the entire frond, small blotches here and there, or even small, speckled dots.
If not remedied quickly, rot can take down a Staghorn fern within a matter of days. Because the plant is also losing its ability to function correctly, you might see drooping or leaf drop accompanying the appearance of brown spots.
On the other end of the spectrum, underwatering can present as brown spots on your fern’s fronds, but in a much different manner.
Plants that are underwatered typically have to alter their internal processes to protect vital systems and conserve as much water as possible. An underwatered Staghorn fern will start showing signs of thirst by wilting. Fronds will become wrinkled or shriveled-looking and will begin to droop down.
In severe cases of underwatering, as the plant continues to conserve water, the tips of the fronds will begin to dry out and burn, turning brown and crispy. This will continue to travel down the frond until the plant is watered.
Underwatering can be a serious issue, not only because of the damage it does to the plant, but because growing medium that has been allowed to dry out too much can often be difficult to rehydrate, repelling water rather than absorbing it. This makes proper water all the more problematic.
Too Much Light
As was mentioned above, Staghorn ferns that have seen a little too sun might start to exhibit yellowing fronds. Direct sun exposure is fine in small doses (usually in the mornings), but too much of it begins to take its toll on your plant.
If you’re seeing brown fronds on your Staghorn fern due to sun exposure, you need to act immediately. This likely means that your plant is in the wrong spot in your home and got blasted by an unhealthy dose of hot, direct afternoon sun.
Sunburn on fern fronds can range from yellow, to brown, to even black, and can look leathery or stippled. The browning usually only affects the fronds that were directly exposed to the sunlight, but because this can severely dry out these ferns, you may see additional damage, like brown frond tips.
Fronds with sunburn aren’t likely to heal properly, so a badly burned plant might need several fronds removed from it in order to recover and produce new growth.
Why Is My Staghorn Fern Wilted?
Wilting leaves are a classic sign of underwatering in the plant world. As plants dry out, they work hard to conserve moisture by allocating it for vital systems, usually at the expense of their leaf health.
Staghorns operate the same way. As they dry out, the foliar fronds, which are usually arcing up and outward from the base, begin to lose their internal turgor pressure as water content falls. As a result, they begin to shrivel slightly and start to drop down.
This is usually easily remedied by providing the plant with water, whereupon absorption, the fronds become saturated with water once again and perk back up. If caught early enough, no lasting damage is done, but you still run the risk of drying out the growing medium, making it difficult to properly water in the future.
Why Is My Staghorn Fern Droopy?
We already know that overwatering can be a big issue for Staghorn ferns, due to the risk of yellowing and rot. However, your plant may exhibit another symptom that, if caught early enough, can help you identify the problem and fix it before any real damage is done to the fern.
Many plants suffering from chronic overwatering will show signs of drooping, meaning their leaves and stems become weak and floppy, resulting in the whole plant looking a bit limp. This is the result of the plant not being able to efficiently carry out important functions like nutrient transport and respiration to help control water content.
In serious cases of overwatering, the drooping may indicate that your plant is suffering from root rot and is on the verge of collapse.
However, a Staghorn fern might droop long before any signs of yellowing appear, so keeping a keen eye on your plant might help you identify an overwatering situation early enough to avoid any real damage.
Drooping can be a somewhat subjective symptom of plant health that is often confused with wilting. While it is true that wilting plants (due to underwatering) do, in fact, droop, there are some key differences to look out for to properly identify the issues and not make things worse.
Wilting plants may have droopy leaves, but they often retain somewhat upright stems. Foliage is often shriveled or desiccated and may feel dry to the touch. Drooping plants (due to overwatering) usually still have leaves and stems that feel supple and full, but overall, have lost rigidity, feeling limp and weak.
Too Much Light
Although not often a reliable sign of overexposure to sunlight, it is worth mentioning that in cases where your Staghorn fern is receiving too much direct light, you might also notice fronds looking wilted, limp, and droopy.
Usually, this is because the overexposure also creates hot, dry conditions that are difficult for the fern to thrive in. Conditions that are very warm but with low humidity tend to dry out the plant and the growing medium, creating a microenvironment that is difficult for the fern to tolerate, resulting in it going a bit limp after intense bouts of sun exposure.
Why Is My Staghorn Fern Dropping Leaves?
In addition to the signs of distress mentioned above, you may notice that your Staghorn fern seems to be shedding fronds from time to time. A dropped frond every once in a while isn’t cause for concern, but if you see fronds dropping frequently or in addition to any of the signs above, you may want to investigate further.
A dropped frond now and again is nothing to be concerned about. Like many other houseplants, Staghorn ferns occasionally drop old fronds that have outgrown their function, opting to replace them with new growth.
This is totally normal. If your fern is dropping a frond only a few times a year and there are no other signs of distress, do not worry about it.
In some cases, frequent frond drop can be a sign of a more serious condition. In situations of overwatering, dropped leaves can be an indication of a serious rot issue. As rot continues to spread up through the plant, fronds can be easily detached near their base where the rot originated.
This is a very serious condition requiring you to take steps to dry the plant out, remove any rotten plant material, and either repot or remount your fern with new growing medium.
Alternatively, in situations where conditions are too dry, your fern may resort to frond drop as a way of preserving as much moisture as possible, sacrificing parts of itself to stay alive longer.
This is usually a last-ditch effort on the plant’s part, so you should already have recognized that the plant was wilted, dry, and turning brown at the frond tips by this point. Again, you need to act quickly and water your fern as soon as possible.
Proper Care for Staghorn Ferns
As you can see, when it comes to situations where your Staghorn fern is exhibiting discoloration, wilting, drooping, or frond dropping, it is likely due to a care issue that isn’t being properly addressed.
In most cases, small alterations in your plant care practice that are more favorable to your fern is all it needs to thrive. But what kind of care does your Staghorn fern need?
Obviously, it is important to give your fern the right amount of water, but because of the way these plants grow, it can be tricky to get it right. There is not a hard and fast rule about watering Staghorns, but we can offer some guidelines.
Start out by watering mounted ferns once a week during warmer months, but dial it back to once every two weeks in the cooler months. Over time, you can adjust your schedule as needed, but this is a good starting point.
Potted Staghorns may not need as much watering since moisture will be retained in the larger amount of growth medium or soil, but you can easily check this by sticking your finger down into the soil, waiting for the top inch to dry out before watering again.
For mounted ferns, fully submerge them facedown in a bathtub or basin filled with room temperature water. Alternatively, you can hang them in the shower and allow it to spray them with tepid water until they are fully saturated. Allow them to drip dry before returning them to their hanging spot.
If you find your plant looks dry in between waterings, you can increase the frequency by a day or two or rely on misting your plant a few times a week to help maintain moisture.
Staghorn ferns love a humid environment, which can be difficult to achieve indoors. Aim for humidity levels above 50%, although 60% and over is even better. This may require the addition of a room humidifier or displaying your fern in the bathroom, where it can benefit from its proximity to hot, steamy showers.
Misting frequently can also help your fern thrive when high humidity is difficult to maintain. Use a good spray bottle or mister filled with room temperature water (rainwater is best!) and mist your plants three to four times a week, focusing on the basal frond and the undersides of the foliar fronds.
Save a prime spot in your home for your Staghorn fern. They do best away from direct sunlight but will take as many hours of bright, indirect light as you can give them. This means pulling them back from windows but not tucking them away on dim bookshelves.
They also don’t do great with artificial grow lights, so be sure you give them a spot that won’t require supplemental lighting.
Our homes are pretty conducive to a Staghorn fern’s temperature needs, so you should be ok as long as you keep the thermostat between 55°-85°F. Just make sure it doesn’t get too cold at night and keep your plant protected from heating or A/C vents that can create drafts.
As mentioned above, Staghorn ferns aren’t super heavy feeders, but because they utilize such a small amount of organic matter to grow in, they are susceptible to fluctuations in nutrient availability.
To avoid that, you can apply a well-balanced liquid feed no more than once a month. For potted ferns, dilute the fertilizer in water and apply it during your next watering session. For mounted ferns, you’ll want to dilute the feed in water before submerging the plant so that it can absorb it as it soaks.
As these ferns mature, they require less inputs, so supplemental feedings twice a year are usually sufficient.
Staghorn ferns are such cool, unique plants that can be really stunning additions to our homes. However, when they start to droop or wilt and become discolored, it’s usually a sign that something is not quite right.
The good news is that most causes of these conditions are just care practices that need a little refinement and are generally easy to fix. Your Staghorn fern should recover quickly once the issue is addressed, and they’ll return to being the sophisticated pieces of living art they once were in no time.