26 December 2011

Platycerium - A Pretty Peculiar Plant

Platycerium – even the name sounds odd.  Mostly referred to as Staghorn or Elkhorn ferns, this genus of fern is, to say the very least, unusual looking.  Yet they are fascinating to look at because their fronds are something else, quite unique.  To look at a platycerium is to look back in time millions of years.

They are found on several continents, South America, Africa, Asia as well as Australasia and unsurprisingly thrive in tropical and temperate climates.   They really aren’t your average fern at all.

In their adult phase they are known as sporophytes and like all other members of the fern family they produce spores to produce the next generation. See the brown color on the fronds?  Those are the spore patches.

They produce a short rhizome (or root stalk) and this is the point from which the plant grows its fronds.  However, it has a trick up its sleeve here.

The first type of fronds it produces are known as fertile fronds and these will create the spores to prolong the species.  The platycerium, however, has a second type of frond, known as the basal frond. This is infertile but has a very important function.  These shield shaped frond effectively laminate the plant against a tree, meaning that the platycerium can gain vertical height in the canopy.

Image Credit Flickr User Jiggs Images
Of course, some end up quite close to the ground too!
The basal fronds are also used to protect the tufted roots of the plant from harm and from becoming too dry.  Some species of platycerium have fertile fronds which produce lobes in the shape of a crown.  These catch water and other forest detritus.  Mostly, though, they are shaped like antlers, which gives the plants their common names.

Each front contains sporangia – these are where the spores are born and they are arranged on the lobes of the fronds. These particular spores are often called sporangiospores which admittedly does sound like an Italian pasta meal but without them there would be no next generation of platycerium.

Image Credit Flickr User tanetahi 
Platycerium can form colonies but some species have a single rootstalk.  Colonies are created when a single rhizome (rootstalk) forms a branch.  When the spores are released then hopefully they will alight on neighboring trees and start the process of growth again there.

Many gardeners are enthusiastic about platycerium and the advantage of the colonial types of this gorgeous fern is that they can be propagated through a process of division.  Once they are divided then some keen gardeners will strap the new plant (using stockings!) to a tree until a new rhizome is strong enough to support the plant’s weight on its own.

They are an obvious talking point for a garden but are even more spectacular in the wild.  When mature they are large – often more than a meter in width.

You might be forgiven for thinking that platycerium are parasitic but you would be wrong.  In a similar way to orchids, they grow on the host plant but do not take sustenance from it.  They generate their own food and so do not need to draw food from their ‘host’ tree.

Kuriositas would like to thanks Flickr Users tanetahi, Danya R, Jiggs Images, Bellingen1, Poytr and dracophylla for their very kind permission to use their wonderful photographs.  Please visit their photostreams and discover their pictures!