Staghorn ferns are such neat, otherworldly plants that have unique growth patterns and foliage. Mature plants can be quite impressive, either in a pot or mounted on a board. However, it can take some time for these plants to get established and develop, and if yours isn’t showing any signs of growth, it might be a little nerve-racking. Is there a reason your Staghorn fern isn’t growing?
In general, Staghorn ferns are very slow-growing plants, only nearing maturity after several years. However, during this time, it is common to see new basal and foliar fronds emerge. If your Staghorn isn’t growing, it is likely due to improper conditions like inadequate watering, low humidity, temperature, light, or insufficient nutrients.
Although Staghorn ferns can seem a bit tricky to take care of initially, once you understand their care requirements and how to satisfy them, you’ll likely see slow, but steady growth on your plant year after year.
In this article, we’ll cover the five most common reasons Staghorn fern growth stalls out and the simple fixes you can make to ensure nothing is holding back your fern from maturing.
What Are Staghorn Ferns?
Staghorn ferns are a small group of 18 species of epiphytic ferns that belong to the Platycerium genus. They are native to parts of Southeast Asia, Africa, and Australia, and all have fronds that resemble the antlers of elk or deer. Other common names for these plants are “Elkhorn ferns”, “Deerhorn ferns” or “Moosehorn ferns”.
These ferns are all epiphytic, meaning they grow on other plants and trees. They absorb nutrients from organic matter that has collected against and behind their basal fronds through tufted roots growing from their rhizomes. Water can be drawn into the plant through its roots or fronds, meaning that high-humidity climates are conducive to growth.
As houseplants, Staghorn ferns are typically mounted on a board, a piece of tree bark, or something similar, with a bundle of growing medium like sphagnum or peat moss tucked behind it. Over time, the basal fronds will cover this medium and secure the plant to its mount as it continues to grow.
Alternatively, smaller plants can be grown in a pot with a rich, well-drained growing medium as the base. Staghorn ferns do not grow in the medium itself, like most houseplants, but will use it as a nutrient resource as it continues to produce fronds.
Slow and Steady Growth
If you consider the life of an epiphytic plant, sometimes securing the natural resources for growth can be a real challenge. Water, nutrients, and sunlight can sometimes be scarce for these types of plants, all of which have a direct impact on their growth rates.
Staghorn ferns have evolved to play the long game, though. They have found a way to survive in the competitive environment of dense rainforests, adapting to lower light conditions and securing water not just through their root systems, but also from their fronds. Their epiphytic growth doesn’t require a lot of organic matter all at once to provide the nutrients needed to survive.
The tradeoff, however, is that their growth rates are significantly slower than a lot of other tropical plants. By adapting to this slower rate, a Staghorn fern is actually pretty economical with the resources it can access, avoiding instances where supply is dwarfed by demand. It seems that Staghorn ferns have adopted a “slow and steady wins the race” approach to reaching maturity.
This is a good thing to keep in mind when you have concerns about your own Staghorn’s growth. In some cases, your plant might still be putting out that slow and steady growth, but it’s just at a rate you aren’t paying attention to.
If, however, you truly aren’t seeing any new growth after several months of monitoring your fern, then it might be time to consider alternative reasons for the pause.
Why Isn’t My Staghorn Fern Growing?
If it’s been quite some time without any signs of growth from your Staghorn fern, it is time to start investigating both the environment the plant is in and the care it receives.
While it is true that Staghorn ferns can be susceptible to pests and diseases that can have a negative impact on their growth rates, they are generally pretty low-maintenance, hardy plants, so these situations are few and far between, and often accompanied by other signs that plant’s health is suffering.
Instead, pay attention to what inputs the plant needs to thrive that might have become a limiting factor that has created a bottleneck for the plant’s growth.
Overwatering is a common issue that leads to the disruption of a plant’s overall well being and can stunt growth. Staghorn ferns are no different. Too much water can interrupt nutrient absorption and lead to issues with rot in its roots, rhizomes, and fronds. This is a more common scenario for ferns that are potted rather than mounted, especially if the growing medium isn’t given enough time to properly drain and dry between waterings.
Alternatively, underwatering has a huge impact on a Staghorn’s ability to produce new growth, as well. As the plant dries out, internal systems slow down, and nutrient storage decreases. The resources available in the small amount of organic matter your Staghorn fern is be planted against may become inaccessible as the medium dries out.
Avoid both extremes and learn to water your Staghorn fern correctly.
For potted Staghorns, water the growing medium so it becomes fully saturated, allowing excess liquid to drain from the pot. Wait to water again until the top inch of soil has fully dried out. There will still be moisture lower down, but this way, you’ll avoid watering too frequently.
For mounted plants, submerge the entire plant and board in tepid water until the fronds and growing medium are fully saturated. Remove it from the water and allow it to fully drain before rehanging. Again, try to wait until the growth medium has had a chance to dry out before submerging it again.
At any time, you can also provide moisture for your Staghorn fern by misting it with a spray bottle or mister and allowing the water to absorb through the fronds. This is a great method to ensure your plant is well-hydrated while you are waiting for the growing medium to dry out enough between waterings.
Low Humidity/Dry Conditions
Humidity can also have a large impact on a Staghorn fern’s growth rate. Remember, these are tropical plants native to regions where humidity levels are much higher than the average household, and drier conditions can affect growth rates similar to how underwatering might.
Humidity not only contributes to a plant’s moisture level, but it can also help new growth unfurl and develop properly. If you see newer fronds that have emerged but end up smaller than older ones, that could be a sign your plant doesn’t have enough humidity.
One of the best ways to combat dry conditions is to add a humidifier to a room where you keep your Staghorn. This is the easiest way to maintain an indoor climate that suits your houseplants. Another option is to keep your fern in the bathroom, where humidity levels tend to be higher.
If a humidifier is out of the question, regular misting of your Staghorn can help prevent dry conditions that lead to stunted growth. Even a light mist a few times a week can make a world of difference. Also, try to avoid placement where heating or AC vents create drafts that can dry out the plant.
Like other tropical plants native to densely forested areas, Staghorn ferns have adapted to grow well in moderately lit environments. While they can tolerate a wide range of light exposure for some time, a Staghorn’s growth will begin to stall out if levels drop too low.
Just like with low humidity, fronds that are growing smaller over time could be an indication that your fern isn’t getting enough sunlight throughout the day.
Staghorn ferns do really well in bright, indirect or dappled sunlight, where ambient light is abundant, but the intensity and heat of direct sun are avoided. Aim for a spot in your home where it has indirect exposure for most of the day.
These plants can take some direct sun, but you should be mindful that they will dry out a lot faster, which can be counterproductive, and you run the risk of burning or bleaching the fronds of the plant. Morning direct sun is usually safer for ferns than hotter afternoon or evening sun.
In general, most of us keep our homes at a temperature conducive to a Staghorn fern’s growth. However, there are situations where temperature can contribute to the slowing or stunting of new growth on these plants.
Keep temperatures between 55°-85°F for Staghorn ferns. They can tolerate a wider range but do best when not pushed to either extreme.
For anyone who likes to bring their Staghorn ferns outdoors during warmer months, be sure to keep an eye on the thermometer. Bring your plant back inside on any nights that get colder than 40°F. Staghorn ferns have been known to handle mild frosts, but you definitely run the risk of disrupting their growth the colder it gets.
Alternatively, temperatures above 100°F should also be avoided, mainly because of how fast a Staghorn can dry out in these conditions. Either stay on top of watering and misting or bring them inside to shelter against the hottest parts of the day.
One last care factor you should consider if your Staghorn fern seems stunted is the amount of nutrients available to the plant. Being an epiphyte, these ferns have adapted to collect the sustenance they need from small amounts of organic matter. However, if those reserves ever get used up or washed away, it could create a deficiency that slows down growth significantly.
If you suspect a nutrient deficiency, you should explore supplemental fertilizer applications to ensure your Staghorn has what it needs to thrive.
For potted ferns, an application of a well-balanced (1:1:1 or similar ratio) liquid feed diluted in water once a month is often sufficient. Alternatively, you could apply slow-release pellets to the growth medium to supply additional nutrients during each watering session.
For mounted ferns, liquid fertilizer added to the water is best, making sure the growing medium behind the basal fronds has been well-saturated during each soaking.
As the plant matures, you may find that you don’t need to add feed as frequently. Even twice annual feedings are often enough to keep a full-grown Staghorn fern happy.
Staghorn fern care can often seem foreign and difficult when you first begin, but over time, many people realize just how easy-going these plants can actually be. As long as they have what they need, they’ll continue to mature, albeit very slowly.
Remember that if your Staghorn seems stunted or dormant, it should be pretty easy to systematically rule out the reasons why. As long as you are providing quality care and a proper environment for your plant, it should remain healthy and productive. Don’t forget…slow and steady wins the race!