Staghorn Fern Not Growing Shield Frond? Here’s Why

It’s often fascinating how plants evolve unique features to adapt to their environments. The staghorn fern is an excellent example of this, as it has a second kind of leaf known as a shield frond. This type of frond serves many functions, so it can be confusing when your staghorn fern doesn’t seem to be growing them.

Your staghorn fern might not be growing a shield frond because you have propagated it, or the old ones have recently turned brown. A staghorn fern’s shield frond dries up and sheds naturally over time. New ones should grow normally with sufficient light, humidity, and suitable temperatures.

This article will tackle why your staghorn fern doesn’t have shield fronds and how to fix the issue. Read on! 

Common Reasons and Fixes for Insufficient Shield Frond Growth

A staghorn fern’s shield frond is as unique as its antler-shaped leaves. It also has a vital role in root protection and nutrient collection, making it rather alarming when your plant isn’t growing new ones.

Here’s why this might be happening: 

Your Fern Is Young

Staghorn ferns grow pretty slowly and can take several months to produce new leaves. They typically reproduce and propagate through clones called pups, which should come with a shield frond when replanted.

Some novice gardeners might damage the shield frond when replanting the pups into the soil or wire mesh. It may seem like a horrible mistake, but it should be fine as long as the roots are well-nourished and protected within the substrate.

How to Fix

If your plant isn’t growing a new shield frond but otherwise looks healthy, it shouldn’t be a cause for concern. It usually takes several weeks to a few months before the pups can produce new shield fronds. The same thing goes with the foliar fronds.

However, if your plant is exhibiting symptoms of transplant shock, such as wilting foliar fronds, you must address the underlying problem.

It could be any of the following:

  • Inadequate sunlight
  • Water-logged substrate
  • Low humidity
  • Low temperatures
  • Poor air circulation

The Old Shield Fronds Have Just Turned Brown

Staghorn ferns belong to the genus Platycerium, which has 18 species. All members of this genus contain two types of fronds: the fertile foliar fronds and the sterile basal or shield fronds.

While all of them share this trait, not all species have identical shield fronds. Some species have kidney-shaped fronds that overlap, while others have more rounded ones. Others may even form a cup-like upward curve to catch water, pests, and plant debris.

Sometimes, their shape can make it harder to spot new shield fronds. Fresh ones normally grow above the brown ones, but you can’t see them under the thick mass of mature foliar fronds.

However, if you can’t find new shield fronds after a thorough inspection, it could be because the old ones have just turned brown. Your plant needs to generate energy to produce new ones, and since staghorn ferns are slow growers, it can take some time to complete the process.

Shield fronds typically turn brown over time, starting from the edges and gradually moving inward.

After some time, depending on the species, they will do either of the following:

  • Shed or fall off
  • Cup the roots as another layer of covering, looking like dried coconut husks

If your plant doesn’t get enough moisture or nutrients, it may struggle to produce fresh shield fronds. Growing new ones can take a few months, even with sufficient nutrients.

How to Fix

The best thing to do in this case is to wait for new shield fronds to grow. While waiting, it’s best to ensure the plant is kept in a suitable environment that will encourage it to stay healthy and produce new fronds.

Avoid the urge to pluck out the old shield fronds. They might not look very attractive, but they’re crucial for your plant’s growth. Allow them to shed naturally.

There Is Insufficient Sunlight

Staghorn ferns are epiphytes that grow well on tree trunks and branches in their native tropical habitat. Such a condition allows them to thrive in partial shade underneath the tree canopies. Nonetheless, they can’t tolerate deep shade.

They can’t grow fast enough to seek out the sunlight, making them less likely to survive. When continuously exposed to low light conditions, their initial response is to preserve energy by limiting new growth. Therefore, no new shield or foliar fronds will grow out of your plant.

After long periods of inhospitably low light, your plant will likely die.

How to Fix

Staghorn ferns need bright, indirect light during the day. While it’s possible to grow them comfortably on a porch or in a shaded part of the garden in USDA zones 9-12, most gardeners grow their plants indoors.

Place your staghorn fern next to a bright eastern window or a curtained southern or western window. Avoid the northern window because it doesn’t receive sufficient sunlight to meet your plant’s needs.

If such options aren’t available, you can use grow lights with a brightness of about 1000-foot candles to meet the plant’s light needs. Alternatively, you can use a 40-watt fluorescent lamp 6 inches (15 cm) from your plant. 

For staghorn ferns that thrive in medium to high light intensity, you can leave the light on for 12-16 hours a day for the best results.

The Humidity Is Too Low

Staghorn ferns can tolerate slight wilting from a dry substrate between waterings. However, it cannot survive extremely dry air.

As tropical plants, they’re accustomed to receiving sufficient rainfall annually, with the humidity almost constantly above 50%. However, Such a level can be too challenging to maintain in the home environment because anywhere above 50% can be too uncomfortable for humans.

Staghorn ferns find the most comfort from humidity levels above 70%. The low humidity at home can result in stunted growth, further delaying the development of new shield fronds. It then gives you the impression that your plant isn’t growing shield fronds at all.

How to Fix

While the bathroom and kitchen are the best places at home for naturally high humidity, they are likely to have limitations that can negatively affect your staghorn fern. For instance, they may be humid enough for your plant, but there might not be enough air circulation or sunlight.

You can move your plant to the kitchen or the bathroom only if all the growth requirements are met. Ensure these places have adequate sunlight and good airflow. 

In addition, protect your plants from overwatering risks by keeping them away from water sources like the shower head.

Tips to Encourage Your Staghorn Fern Grow Shields

Staghorn ferns have specific growth requirements that help them grow optimally. Paying attention to them and addressing them often eliminates most problems with growth.

Here are some tips to help your staghorn ferns grow shield fronds:

Choose an Easy-to-Grow Species

Among the 18 species under the genus Platycerium, P. bifurcatum is the most widely cultivated staghorn fern in the US because it’s relatively easier to grow than its relatives. It’s also the hardiest among the group.

It can survive temperatures as low as 30 °F (-1.1 °C) for short periods, while others can barely make it out of temperatures below 50 °F (10 °C) without sustaining physical damage.

Other easy-to-grow alternatives are P. veitchii, P. hillii, and P. alcicorne. These cultivars are easy to satisfy with minimal care and will produce vibrant foliar and shield fronds when their needs are met.

Provide Your Plant With Moderate to Bright Light

As discussed, staghorn ferns can tolerate shade. They will thrive in bright light conditions, but too much sunlight, especially direct sunlight in the summer, can burn the fronds and kill your outdoor plant.

When grown outdoors, keep your plant in an area in the garden where it can receive shade from trees, a tall fence, a wall, or the eaves of a roof. You can also grow them in hanging baskets on the porch. 

Indoors, grow them next to a bright window, especially in the winter. Use artificial light sources like grow lights or fluorescent lamps when daylight hours decrease and there’s insufficient natural light.

Keep Your Plant at Temperatures Above 40 °F (4 °C)

Staghorn ferns are tropical plants. This means they prefer warm temperatures and are intolerant to temperatures below 50 °F (10 °C). Ideally, they should stay well within 70 and 90 °F (21 and 32 °C), but such conditions are hard to maintain all year round in the US.

As long as the nighttime temperatures don’t drop below 40 °F (4 °C), your plant can thrive happily outdoors. However, it’s best to bring your plant indoors during unusually cold winters to prevent winter injury. 

Otherwise, your plant might not only cease producing new fronds but will also likely die.

Avoid Overwatering

Staghorn ferns are very sensitive to overwatering. Their roots are often covered by dried shield fronds, making it challenging to quickly dry out the excess moisture.

Here are some things you can do to avoid overwatering:

  • Improve the air circulation around your plant.
  • Use a well-draining substrate.
  • Allow the plant to dry a bit before watering.
  • Divide your plant when it becomes overgrown.

You can also increase the humidity in the room by using humidifiers. What the epiphyte lacks in moisture from the substrate, it can absorb from the air.

Final Thoughts

Like most plants, staghorn ferns will stop producing new leaves (shield fronds and foliar fronds) when exposed to unsuitable conditions. 

Although most staghorn fern cultivars in the US are easy to grow, they still have a set of requirements gardeners have to meet to ensure they grow optimally and continue producing new shield fronds.

Dr. Moritz Picot

Dr. Moritz Picot is a horticulture enthusiast and the founder of TheGrowingLeaf.com, where he serves as the lead content writer. He established the website in 2022 as a valuable resource for both gardening aficionados and beginners, compiling all the gardening tips he has accumulated over the past 25 years. Alex has a passion for nurturing plants, transforming backyards into inviting spaces, and sharing his knowledge with the world.

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