Few things are as disappointing to plant lovers as having a healthy houseplant today and the next day it’s gone. It’s much worse when that plant is a staghorn fern that grows slowly to reach its impressive large size.
Also botanically known as Platycerium bifurcatum or commonly as Elkhorn fern, this fern is an epiphyte – which means they survive and grow best when mounted on other substrates. In nature, they grow on the bark of trees.
Besides, you can grow small plants in containers as long as you provide them with a rich and well-draining media.
Staghorn ferns have two distinct leaf forms—small, flat leaves (known as shield fronds) that cover the root ball structure and take up water and nutrients; and green, pronged antler fronds that emerge from the base.
Given their unusual growing characteristics, they make a pleasant addition to your plant collection. However, they come with challenges that if not addressed, you may lose your entire plant.
Luckily, in today’s post, we’re going to discuss how to save a dying staghorn fern fast!
How to Tell If Your Staghorn Fern is Dying
Plants have an unmistakable way of communicating when there’s trouble. It’s your job to keep monitoring them and picking up important clues about their health. While some of the indications may be natural such as the yellowing of the older leaves, others should worry you.
Here are a few indications that your staghorn fern might be dying:
Staghorn Fern Leaves Turning Brown from the Base
Anytime you notice a change of color on the leaves, you should diagnose the problem and take remedial measures as soon as possible.
In this case, antler fronds turning brown or black from the base is a clear indication of your plants dying due to water suffocation or lack of air circulation.
Antler Fronds Turning Black or Brown on the Tips
Browning or blackening of antler frond tips is just as bad as the base. However, in this case, it may be a result of insufficient moisture.
If this problem persists without intervention, the entire fronds will turn brown, and subsequently, the plant will die.
Staghorn Fern Leaves Dropping
If your Elkhorn fern is shading or dropping a few leaves once in a while, then there’s really nothing to worry about. Especially, if those leaves are aged – it’s a normal process where the plant replaces the older leaves with young strong leaves.
However, if the plants are drastically dropping their leaves, it means something is totally wrong. The most common culprits for the drop are inadequate humidity and pest infestations.
Therefore, you should investigate and take the necessary measures as we’re going to discuss in the next section.
7 Tips on How to Save a Dying Staghorn Fern
1. Check on Your Watering
This is a no-brainer.
If you’ve been generally working with plants, you already know how important optimal watering is. As far as Staghorn ferns are concerned, be sure not to overwater your plant – they rot quite easily.
Since it can be hard to tell how moist or dry the planting medium is, it's best to wait until your fern wilts slightly before watering. Where a wilting fern will quickly recover with water, an overwatered fern will rot and die.
However, if you let the plant wilt for a prolonged period, the tips of the fronds will begin to turn brown indicating your plant is dying. But established plants are fairly drought tolerant so can withstand fairly long periods without water.
It’s also important to note that Staghorn ferns absorb water through their fronds as well as the roots so be sure to soak the basal fronds and the medium.
And as always, allow some drying of the growing medium in between waterings.
A good rule of thumb is to water once a week during warm, dry weather and less frequently during cool or cloudy weather.
Observing good watering practices is one of the best ways to save a dying staghorn fern anytime.
2. Fix Root and Frond Rots
As already established, overwatering will cause the roots of your fern to rot. Sometimes just the base of the fern (basal frond), and not the roots, is affected by water that does not drain quickly enough and is standing around the base of the plant.
If you notice that your staghorn plant has begun to get mushy at the base, act quickly and you may be able to remedy the problem.
All you have to do is remove your plant from its pot or substrate and check to see the condition of the roots. If some are still white, cut away the darkened, mushy roots and any rotted areas at the base of the fern with a sterile knife.
However, you should never cut out the basal frond even if it looks dead. Just let it fall out naturally and another one will sprout back.
You should also cut out any water until the plant recovers from the rot.
3. Change the Growing Substrate
Root rots are not only caused by excess moisture in the media but a member of water mold called Phytophthora spp as well.
Now, once you fix the rot and narrow down on watering, the pathogen responsible persists in the substrate. Hence the need to change the growing substrate entirely.
Use fresh sphagnum peat moss or homemade compost. To encourage new growth, add a small amount of slow-release fertilizer to the substrate before planting back your staghorn fern.
4. Invigorate the Rooting System
This is where you’ll need to make some sacrifices for the long-term good.
Here’s what I mean.
Trimming off dead or rotting roots will cause an imbalance between the top foliage part and the rooting system. At least in the short term.
However, you can restore this balance by trimming off aged fronds so that the plant doesn’t go into shock. You can also apply a bit of rooting hormone to trigger more root growths and micro-root hairs.
If you do this successfully, your plant will get a whole new life!
5. Provide Optimum Temperature and Humidity
Staghorn fern thrives in warm temperatures accompanied by medium to high humidity. Most homes’ temperatures (above 55ºF) will be sufficient to keep your plants growing.
Mature ferns can withstand short periods of freezing but it’s safe to keep the temperature warm for them to survive and thrive.
Furthermore, you need to keep humidity at higher levels as they receive in their native setting. To increase the humidity around your plant, try placing it in one of the more naturally humid areas of your home, such as the bathroom or kitchen.
Alternatively, you can get one of our recommended plant humidifiers to help raise the relative humidity around your plants.
6. Fertilize your Staghorn Fern Appropriately
Just like human beings where nutrition determines how healthy one is, so are the plants.
It’s therefore important to feed your Staghorn ferns during their active growing period to give them a growth boost.
These ferns can benefit from the application of a fertilizer with a 1:1:1 ratio; as always, be sure to follow label instructions.
While the fern is young, fertilizer should be applied monthly during warm months and every other month during the cooler months as growth slows.
Mature staghorn will thrive with a once- or twice-yearly fertilizer application.
Alternatively, you can place slow-release fertilizer pellets in the growing medium to allow them to utilize the nutrients as they grow.
7. Control Pests and Diseases
For the better part of the year, staghorn ferns are relatively pest-free. But once in a while, they may be infested with mealybugs or scales or both.
When that happens, your ferns will begin to drop their leaves as a result of these sap-sucking bugs.
If you monitor your plants often, you’ll be able to eliminate them before they kill your plant. To treat the fern, use neem oil or any other natural fungicide.
Be sure to follow all the instructions on the label for your safety as well as that of your plants.
Bonus: Light Quality and Quantity are Key
While staghorn ferns thrive in shaded and partially shaded areas, conditions with very low light are likely to encourage disease and pest development.
You should therefore keep them in a location that boasts consistent, shaded light. They can also handle more sunlight if given enough water, warmth, and humidity. But you need to be careful with direct sunlight which can easily burn their fragile fronds.
One of the things I love about plants is that they can be very forgiving if you realize your mistakes early. So, if you’ve wondered if it’s possible to save them from their imminent death, well, you can - depending on how far the damage has been caused.
The bottom line, pay close attention and take action as soon as you notice your plant in trouble.
You’ve just read several ways you can save a dying staghorn fern!
Which ones do you find effective? And also let me know if I have left out any important ones. I’ll be waiting in the comments.
Until next time, happy gardening!