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What Is Platycerium?

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  • Written By: Terrie Brockmann
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 15 October 2014
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The plants that belong to the genus Platycerium in the family Polypodiaceae are ferns that people most commonly call stag horn ferns or elkhorn ferns. Typically, these ferns have broad, uniquely forked fronds that resemble deer, elk, or moose antlers. The lobe shape, length, and color depend on the species and cultivar. Ferns never have flowers; therefore, people raise them strictly for their foliage.

The ferns belonging to Platycerium are native to tropical regions, including rainforests, in many parts of the world. Some of the places they grow are eastern Australia, the Philippines and Malaysia, and Africa. Gardeners raise the ferns as indoor plants in temperate and colder climates. Typically, growers propagate them by sowing the spores and by detaching plantlets that might grow at the root tips. More information on detaching and rooting the plantlets usually is available in books and on gardening Internet sites.

Staghorn ferns are epiphytes, or air plants, that have two types of leaves, called fronds. At the base of each plant are clasping fronds, and the other fronds are erect, sometimes arching outward. The clasping fronds are sterile and often oblong to round in shape; they usually become dry and brown with age. The erect leaves are the fertile fronds, which may produce the spores on the undersides. Typically, growers collect plants because of the distinctive shapes of the fertile fronds.

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One of the most fashionable Platycerium plants is the P. bifurcatum, called common staghorn, antelope ears, or elk's horn fern. The base has shield- or kidney-shaped fronds that overlap as they grow. In the wild, these basal leaves help to support the plant on a tree trunk and trap debris for the plant to process for food. Little plants called pups sprout between these base, or basal, fronds. The basal fronds generally measure from 5 to 18 inches (about 13 to 46 cm) long, though a few Platycerium species have larger ones.

The more conspicuous fertile fronds of the common staghorn fern are antler-shaped and may reach lengths of 36 inches (about 91 cm) long. The fronds are erect to semi-erect and forked two or three times, creating finger-like lobes. The gray-green leaves often have a hair-like covering, usually called scurf. This may give the leaves a silvery appearance and appears on all Platycerium fern fronds.

The P. alcicorne is another popular Platycerium fern. Sometimes nurseries and gardeners label this fern as a P. bifurcatum; therefore, a buyer need to research which plant he or she is actually getting. The cabbage or elephant's ear fern — P. elephantotis — is the only species of the genus that has fertile fronds that are not lobed. Networks of raised veins, similar to an outer cabbage leaf, pattern the large round fronds, which may grow between 18 to 36 inches (about 46 to 91 cm) in diameter.

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