Home Page

Staghorns and elkhorns

Ferns of distinction — home gardeners look to exotic ferns for impact.

Growing staghorns and elkhorns 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 organic matter. 

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.

Reproduced with permission from NZOOM Home and Garden content,
from the previous website of  TVNZ News

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the RNZIH

More Garden Articles

Home | Journal | Newsletter | Conferences
Awards | Join RNZIH | RNZIH Directory | Links

© 2000–2022 Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture
Last updated: June 2, 2004