Yard Oddities in Old Northeast: Staghorns and Elkhorns

A photo of elk horn ferns hanging from oak trees in a yard.

This edition’s plant oddity is another airborne fern – only this one is hard to miss. A staghorn fern in your yard guarantees compliments and conversation. These epiphytes (air plants that don’t require soil to grow) can be found growing on the sides of trees, but more ambitious gardeners hang them aloft from great oak branches like floating plant planets. 

First, we dispel a common misconception. Astonish (or admonish) your friends by correcting them with this bit of trivia: Most of the staghorn ferns we see hanging around St. Petersburg are actually elkhorn ferns. Staghorn ferns are bigger, usually singular plants with a large, shield-like frond at the front that collects water. Elkhorn ferns are smaller and grow in groups – more like a herd of elk, less like the solitary stag. They may be small, but huge groups of them can form spheres too heavy to lift. It takes a mighty tree to hold the largest of them.

These plants are native to Java, New Guinea, and tropical parts of Australia. There are many throughout the Old Northeast, but some of the neighborhood’s finest are on 19th Avenue near Walnut Street, hanging in multiple yards like an elkhorn fern solar system, enjoying the proximity to Coffee Pot Bayou. 

Got a funky tree or plant you want to see in the Northeast Journal. Reach out to jkilewrites@gmail.com.