I almost always praise every plant I write about, but the staghorn fern is hands down one of the most fascinating plants you’ll ever grow. Platycerium bifurcatum, or the staghorn fern, is a fern-producing plant that grows no flowers but germinates without soil. And while the plant is fascinating for many other reasons, it’s not uncommon to have staghorn ferns with brown leaves.
You should never remove brown basal leaves or fronds on your staghorn fern plant. It’s an essential part of the plant’s natural life cycle. Meanwhile, it’s safe to trim damaged antler fronds, which are another type of leaves on staghorn ferns.
Plants have their lifecycle and enter different phases during development, so it’s normal to panic if you notice a change as drastic as brown or otherwise damaged leaves. I wrote this article to answer all your questions as to why staghorn fern leaves turn brown and handy tips to trim them. Read on to learn tips for growing and caring for this plant in any condition.
Introduction to Staghorn Ferns and Their Characteristics
Most people are usually puzzled when they first see staghorn ferns. After all, it’s not every day you come across a plant that grows out of thin air. However, their distinct development is just one of the many strange features of staghorn ferns.
The plants are primarily famous for the antler-like ferns that earned them their name. These ferns usually look like stag or deer antlers. Still, there’s more to the plant than its fancy-looking shoots and unique root system.
Staghorn ferns are slow-growing natives of Asia and Australia that eventually grow to be pretty enormous and stunning in the right conditions. Platycerium bifurcatum—the most common species grown as a houseplant—typically reaches modest sizes if kept indoors. Apart from this variant, there are 16 other species of staghorn ferns.
As I’ve mentioned, you can grow Platycerium bifurcatum in modest conditions, but they’ll thrive at temperatures between 50 and 100 °F (10 and 38 °C), which is an easy enough range to maintain indoors and outdoors. Therefore, you can keep staghorn ferns as indoor house plants and outdoor garden plants.
And while staghorn ferns have typical growing conditions, their physiology and growing method are pretty much atypical. They’re epiphytic plants, meaning they don’t need soil to germinate, grow roots, and thrive. So, you’ll usually find the plant naturally growing in the crevices of other trees or rocks—an ability that also makes them lithophytes.
Still, the staghorn fern’s adaptation mechanisms are pretty unusual. And while they’re technically ferns, they share very few physical similarities with other fern species. You’ll find the plants on tropical rainforest trees and suitable crevices like rocks and even hillsides in the wild.
They survive by soaking up moisture from the air and receiving nutrient-rich leaf litter from surrounding trees. Unsurprisingly, the staghorn fern uses these exact mechanisms to thrive in houses and gardens.
Staghorn ferns grow two different types of leaves:
The first is a set of small, thin leaves which ball up to cover the plant’s roots. These leaves are also called shield fronds and are responsible for the plant’s moisture and nutrient absorption. They’re also the parts that turn brown as the staghorn ferns mature.
The second set of leaves is the more prominent antler fronds, which stay green and can extend up to 3 feet (36 inches) indoors under the right conditions. However, finding longer staghorn ferns in their natural habitat is pretty standard. These leaves are responsible for the plant’s famous name and form its ornamental feature.
Although many gardeners regard staghorn ferns as somewhat challenging to grow, it’s common for novelty-seeking growers to try their hands at the plant. Most of these growers are usually interested in something different as well as the plant’s distinctiveness and broader availability.
So, it’s not uncommon for people to treat the plant as ornamental pieces. In fact, most growers usually place their staghorn ferns on wall supports or plaques, much like they would a separate work of art.
Causes of Brown Leaves in Staghorn Ferns
It’s normal to have several questions if you keep staghorn ferns—including how to grow them, care for them, and why they look so strange. However, one of the most common questions new keepers or gardeners ask is always related to its appearance, particularly why all staghorn leaves turn brown.
And while I’ve answered this question before, I believe it’s crucial to be thorough.
Staghorn fern leaves turn brown for the following reasons:
- Excessive sunlight
- Low humidity
- Poor watering practices
I’ll explain each of these reasons in more detail:
All healthy staghorn ferns will mature and as they do, the shield fronds will ball up and become brown. This process is part of the plant’s natural developmental stages and helps the staghorn fern cling to trees.
The brown leaves also help the staghorn fern to trap leaves and organic matter for nutrients. This trapped debris usually decomposes into essential minerals vital for the plant’s natural processes. The brown shield fronds also serve as a protective mechanism to keep new growth safe and moist.
Therefore, you shouldn’t remove these leaves if you notice they’re turning brown since pruning them could severely impact the staghorn fern’s wellbeing.
Although staghorn ferns are strange in many ways, they also need sunlight to thrive. And like many plants, they need it in specific intensities to ensure they flourish. So, while staghorns prefer bright light, excessive exposure can dry out their leaves and turn them brown.
It’s easy to recognize staghorn ferns that are turning brown due to excessive sunlight since the affected antler fronds usually have a burned quality. However, I recommend observing what kind of sunlight hits your plant to ensure you’re dealing with the right culprit.
To prevent this problem, I recommend keeping your staghorn fern in a spot where it can get 2-6 hours of early morning or late afternoon sunlight. Alternatively, you can regulate the plant’s sunlight exposure by growing it in the shade of a light curtain against a bright window.
Insecticides can sometimes be problematic for all plants—including staghorn ferns. Although they’re effective in helping the plants deal with mealybugs and aggressive scale insects, insecticides can cause staghorn fern leaves to turn brown.
You can tell if the problem is due to insecticide damage by checking if the leaves are brown at the tips a few days after applying the treatment. In most cases, affected leaves won’t turn brown throughout and will have only brown tips and edges.
To prevent this problem, I recommend using an insecticidal soap instead of an oil-based insecticide. You can use the Garden Safe Insecticidal Soap (available on Amazon.com) to treat the staghorn fern instead. It’s an organic insect killer that’s suitable for indoor house plants and outdoor garden plants.
It’s essential to monitor and control humidity levels constantly if you’re keeping any plant, especially epiphytic plants. Staghorn ferns need high humidity levels of above 50%, or else they won’t grow properly since all their moisture comes from the water in the air.
You’ll notice brown leaf tips if the humidity drops, and the antler fronds will turn utterly brown if the humidity levels drop too low.
You may consider moving the staghorn ferns to humid rooms like a frequently used bathroom or kitchen if they are bright enough and have adequate air circulation. Alternatively, you can place a humidifier next to your staghorn fern.
Poor Watering Practices
Underwatering can be problematic for staghorn ferns since they need high moisture levels to survive. However, overwatering can be just as bad for your plants. Overwatered and underwatered plants can turn brown, and this discoloration may lead to more severe problems for staghorns.
Therefore, you must set a consistent watering routine that will fit the needs of your plants.
Here are a few simple things to keep in mind when watering staghorn ferns:
- Water the shield fronds and the growing substrate thoroughly.
- Check the moisture on the substrate 3-5 days after watering.
- Water as soon as the substrate feels only partially dry. Don’t let it dry out completely.
It’s easier to maintain good watering practices if you grow your ferns on a suitable substrate, such as peat moss or coco coir, and have adequate humidity and air circulation.
How to Remove Brown Leaves
It’s important to note that your staghorn fern needs its leaves, so you should never prune the shield fronds, no matter how unattractive it gets.
Trimming the staghorn’s antler fronds when they turn brown is fine as long as you don’t remove too much. After all, the plant needs all of its vegetative parts if it’s going to thrive.
Here’s how to trim brown staghorn fern leaves:
- Pick out the antler fronds from the shield fronds and examine the brown parts. You can easily tell the different kinds of leaves apart.
- Remove the damaged leaves using a clean pair of scissors or garden shears. Ensure you don’t go beyond the base of the leaf if the entire frond is damaged. However, you can snip off the brown bits if the leaves are still viable.
- Examine the staghorn fern for any other problems and remove new offsets if you don’t want them on your plant. Remember to be very careful, so you don’t hurt the plant.
These steps are relatively easy to follow, but ensure you only remove the antler fronds when trimming.
Staghorn ferns are exciting plants that naturally grow brown leaves as they age. So, you don’t need to remove these brown leaves if you notice them. However, you can remove certain leaves if you want to improve the appearance of the ornamental plants.