Ferns of distinction
home gardeners look to exotic ferns for impact.
Staghorns and elkhorns are some of the most amazing-looking plants,
and despite their exotic appearance they are relatively easy to
grow. The reason they look so different from most other plants is
that they have adapted to survive in the treetops. Stags and elks
are epiphytic, which means that they grow on trees.
Stags and elks have minimal
root systems (just enough to anchor them to the tree) but they have adapted
to catch leaves, debris and rainwater falling from above. Unlike
most other plants, which absorb water and nutrients through their
roots, these ferns can only survive if they capture sufficient quantities
of moisture and nutrients from the surrounding air.
So how do we grow them
in the garden? Well, success depends on recreating the conditions
these plants enjoy in the wild:
The best position
is in light shade with occasional patches of sunlight. Although
they'll cope with light frosts, the plants will need more protection
in really cold areas.
Good drainage is
essential and easy to maintain if the plants are attached to
a suitable backing board. Choose something longlasting. Although
the ferns often grow on living trees in the rainforest, their
presence may be detrimental to the tree so it's best to attach
them to something inert. Supports can be made of wood, recycled
rubber or an existing tree stump. Tie the fern onto the backing
with a soft tie made out of something like a strip of nylon
stocking. If the elk or stag becomes very weighty, it's best
to support it from beneath with some sturdy wire threaded through
an old piece of plastic hose. This will prevent the wire cutting
into the soft tissue of the fern.
Feed gently. Stags
and elks have minimal nutrient requirements. After all, they
usually exist on little more than the rotting leaves they've
managed to collect. Don't overdo it: half a handful of gentle,
organic Nature's Way Bio-Gold pellets, for example, will
be enough for an established fern. Reapply twice a year.
If you'd prefer
to use something non-smelly, apply half-strength Thrive every
few weeks throughout the growing season.
Happy staghorns and elkhorns
are usually relatively free of pests and diseases but they can suffer
attack by scale insects and slugs and snails. Slugs and snails chew
holes in the ferns and leave behind those characteristic slimy trails.
A sprinkling of snail pellets on top of the organic matter in the
back of the fern will discourage most of these mollusc pests. Snails
and slugs are active at night so they can often be captured by hand
with the help of a torch. Use scissors to trim the damaged fronds.
Treat sap-sucking scale
insects by applying a low toxic systemic spray, such as Confidor.
Spray thoroughly over the leaf surfaces and saturate the stored
Don't worry about large
brown felty patches that develop beneath the fronds: these are the
spores, the dust-like particles that are the reproductive stages
of these exotic plants' life cycles.