Tag Archives: staghorn ferns

from the art fair

I just popped over to the Art San Diego 2012 contemporary art fair, which runs through Sunday. In addition to art, there was a lot of interesting design. A couple of the pieces or installations employed live plants and I thought I’d share them here.

The first photos are of a wall piece. I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea of planting a staghorn fern in the head of a stag trophy has been done already, but I thought this was fun. Unfortunately the presentation was short on labels or further information, so the exhibitor missed out on an opportunity to get free publicity on a garden blog that must get readers by the millions.

The other was this art installation by local artist Keenan Hartsten, who works with various natural materials. Making up this piece are plants, pots, the horizontal shelves–whatever they’re made of–and white and colored pebbles that have been glued to the wall to form horizontal lines. In this gallery-like context the plants look extremely strange, even though many of them are fairly common houseplants. If I were uncharitable I might say that the plants looked more artistic and wildly strange than much of the art in the rest of the fair. But being a plant person quite frankly I find that’s generally the case: Most plants are far more interesting than most art.

You can see some of Keenan Hartsten’s other works at his website [ here ]. I Especially like the driftwood piece he did for a local surf shop.

remounting the big staghorn

A view of the patient, unmounted, after it blew over in the winds.

Last week saw some pretty fierce winds in Southern California. The damage at home was the toppling of a potted kalanchoe–no big issue there–and the falling over of a big staghorn fern we’ve been growing for the last couple of decades. In falling over the plant detached from its mount and was a green and brown heap on the ground.

A large specimen staghorn is a thrilling sight, and two decades’ familiarity has given me a certain attachment to this plant. (It’s the botanical part of the graphic at the top of my blog pages.)

In nature these plants are epiphytes, attaching themselves to tree trunks or branches for support in the way many tropical orchids do. There are reports that orchids growing this way are referred to in Central America as “parĂ¡sitas,” through they, like the staghorn, use the host trees for support only and are in no way botanical vampires that suck the living essence from their hosts in the way mistletoe and dodder do.

Remounting a staghorn fern isn’t ridiculous complex, but task gets harder when the plant and support each way weigh forty pounds or more. Here’s what we did.

The failed back mount of the staghorn: The rotted boards you see are its second mount, which detached from the other mounts and was probably why the plant detached from the board when it blew over.
The back side of the staghorn, showing the original foot-square board which was still in fairly good condition--good enough to screw into to help support the forty pounds of fern. Some people report using plywood for the backing, but the layers of plywood will peel and look ugly unless you use the kind made with with waterproof adhesives.
The first pieces for the reengineered backing board. Working on the fairly regular surface of the brick patio was almost as good as assembling a project on a sheet of graph paper. I hardly had to do any measuring to keep things square. (And are those weeds growing in the cracks? Say it isn't so!)
The most recent backing boards were cedar, and still in good condition. Good enough to recycle for the project.
A little wreath of new sphagnum moss laid where the plant was going to be attached. (Actually I moved the moss higher on the board so that the plant would have more room to grow down below. It's the lower shield growth of the fern that actually attaches the plant to the support as it grows.)
In additional to the moss, we snuck this banana peel behind the plant. John saw something on the web where someone suggested incorporating a banana peel as a source of potassium to help the fern develop roots. Gardening seems to be about 40% hard work, 40% patience, 10% science, and 10% luck, magic or voodoo. This detail seemed a little like the voodoo part, but I figured it couldn't hurt.
The staghorn was attached to the new backing in several ways. Two lengths of plastic-coated electrical wire cinched around the least fragile parts of the plant. The most delicate new growth down below was attached using a length of pantyhose. I also ran two screws from behind into the intact original mount.
...a detail showing how the electrical wire and pantyhose tied into the screws that secured the backer boards to the support.

And here we have the finished product. The particular backing board is designed so that the backing can stand on the ground and not have to have the weight supported from behind. You could just make a placque without the legs if you want to suspend the plant from a wall or fence. In a few months all of the backing board should have turned to a uniform silver color.

It was a project I was dreading, but it probably took two people less than two hours to accomplish. That includes the trip to the Home Despot to pick up some additional sphagnum. So in the end: not really a project to dread.

(And let me say thank you to Big Edna for the use of the pantyhose!)

giant staghorn fern

The graphic at the top of this blog is based on a picture of a giant staghorn fern that I’ve been growing for the last decade or so. This is the plant:staghorn
The board it’s mounted to is four feet across, so you can get a sense for how big it is. As far as these larger staghorns go, it’s a teenager. This could easily get 50% larger over time. But even at its current size, people stop and comment.

The plant came labelled Platycerium grande, but I’m now convinced it’s actually the species superbum. (Edit April 10, 2011: Bob in a comment below wondered about which species this was, and I went off and did more research about how to tell these two species apart. The plants appear really similar at first glance. The main diagnosis is whether there are one or two of the patches with spores on the fruiting fronds. P. grande has two patches, P. superbum has one. My plant has the single area where the fronds first branch, so I’m sticking with P. superbum. Apparently superbums are commonly mislabeled grande in the horticultural trade.) As with other staghorns this species produces two kinds of fronds. Sterile, basal ones grow downward and serve to attach the plant to the trees it grows upon in nature. The more decorative fertile fronds grow up and out into the wild forms that earn these plants their “staghorn” name. These latter fronds can divide themselves into upright structures that do not bear spores, and lower ones that do.

Some resources like Staghorn Ferns at a Glance call this a “difficult” species, though that hasn’t been my experience in Southern California, maybe because excessive rains aren’t a problem. For a fern the plant doesn’t seem to care for huge amounts of water. A shot of water once a week or so keeps it happy. It lives on the north-facing side of a fence, so it get only small amounts of direct sunlight. The garden has seen some light frost over the years, and the plant stays outdoors through it all.

view of staghorn from above
A view of the staghorn from the top

Probably the trickiest part of dealing with the plant is moving it around and “repotting” it. The original plant came attached to a board that was about a foot square. As the plant grew I screwed the original board to boards of rot-resistant cedar, secured from behind to pieces going 90 degrees from the main support boards. That first change of supports was to one two feet square. When the plant outgrew it I attached that second support to the current support. To reduce the bulk of the previous support I carefully removed the backing boards that held the planks on the front face together. The fern had attached itself to the boards in the meantime, so it held the boards in place until I attached them to the new support.

Some growers attach sphagnum moss onto the boards where the fern will expand, but the last time I skipped that step and the plant has been happy enough with that decision. As the fronds die and are replaced with new ones, the old fronds decompose slowly, providing an area where moisture and nutrients can gather.