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Staghorn Fern Platycerium bifurcatum

FAMILY: POLYPODIACEAE (Fern Family)

The unusual shape, leathery texture, and thin, felt-like covering of white "hairs" on the leaves of the staghorn fern Platycerium bifurcatum are the inspiration for its common name. The covering is important for gathering moisture, and if it's rubbed off the fronds tend to turn brown and shrivel.

This epiphytic, but not parasitic, plant establishes itself on the trunks and branches of trees and produces layers of fronds, new ones growing over the brown, papery ones, to form a cylinder. This natural container catches water and debris that becomes a nutritious mulch, and creates a secret hideaway for a variety of critters.

Staghorns are also ferns, a fact that many people don't realize because staghorns lack the lacy appearance of most of the ferns we're familiar with. But they truly are ferns, noble Platyceria that also have a lineage dating back to the days of the dinosaurs. In fact, many botanists believe that staghorns are a transition between ancient and modern ferns, because their basal frond stays intact even after their fertile (spore-bearing) fronds reproduce.

Staghorns are epiphytes, that is they grow nonparasitically on the branches of other plants and obtain their nourishment from the air and rain. By using trees as hosts, they provide themselves with a much brighter location than the non-epiphytes restricted to the forest floor. Members of the San Diego Zoo's phenomenal staghorn collection can be seen in Fern Canyon, Flamingo Lagoon, and even in aviaries and other animal enclosures.