We all enjoy the many tropical flowering plants and vines that grow so easily in our sunny climate. The climate reality of too much rain or too much drought, too much heat or short bursts of cold, and don't forget the untamed winds and the unsettling humidity, mostly seems to enhance our thriving horticulture world.
Newcomers always ask what to plant that will bloom all the time and be of little care. A good question, but not necessarily what is going to happen as they shop in the nurseries, shops and even our great farmers' markets. A nice gardening neighbor will be able to recommend something they are growing, the Lee County Extension Service is certainly helpful, visit a garden club and enjoy a native plant sale.
All of the above will help in selection, however, just browsing around and researching and gaining experience, while being time consuming, is the best, fun way to figure out what is going to bloom when and how long.
When you come down here, you can grow a healthy gardenia bush right out there in your yard. Sure beats that potted florist gardenia plant you always enjoyed back up North. It will not, however, bloom all year, but it is easy to grow when you put it in the right place.
As you shop around you will begin to notice that there are many desirable plants, shrubs and grasses that really do not bloom at all. Their textures and shades of green and ease of growth need to be considered by any new resident interested in maintaining a tropical landscape.
An area of only colors and more colors needs to be accented with some cooling greens. The one I have in mind today is the staghorn fern, a member of the Polypodiaceae plant family, and belonging to the genus Platycerium.
There are 18 species recognized along with many varieties and hybrids. Most species grow in Florida. Beginners are not to worry but should not really go around shopping for some of the harder to grow expensive species.
Platycerium bifurcatum seems to be the most common and the most easiest. However, you do not have to worry, there are plenty of them around and even though they will seem to be small at the start, they grow pretty quickly, when you grow them in the right spot.
The right spot will be shady, or even just dappled shade from the tree you will most likely decide to hang this interesting plant. You will be able to enjoy the staghorn fern for a very long time so do not worry about life span. It will very likely live longer than you do. People have donated their beautiful 20-year-old staghorns to the local Garden Club many times. Sometimes it is the 40-year-old staghorn that their parents started when they retired here and changes have to be made.
When we get one, we share it with many people. We do this by cutting it up into smaller beginner plants, then donating or selling them at our Annual Plant Sale every March. Several of our members are experts now in re-habing the old plant into the new plant.
When someone donates a hundred pound, healthy plant, you tend to learn very quickly what to do with it. It is very easy to mount a new section of this plant onto a flat board you can get at any big box store selling wood - they will even cut the size you want. With a little Sphagnum moss some fishing line, nails and hammer ,you are in business. You will also need to have the proper rope or chain and a hanging bracket on the back of the piece of wood. The nails are to wrap the line around as it goes across the moss to hold it all on. Line will disappear as plant grows.
Staghorns are like orchids, they are epiphytes and do not require soil to grow. They attach well to a tree and do not require any other nutrients and will not hurt the host. Attached to a board or a basket ,they do not need to have soil.
When first mounted, they need to be watered to keep the Sphagnum moist. You can even soak them board and all once a week. They do not need to be kept moist as they grow up, in fact they enjoy less water the older they become. To be sure about watering, keep track for a bit and you will see that when it really needs to be watered it will start to look too dry. Water well and let it wait awhile, you will soon see a pattern of wet vs. dry.
You can set the Sphagnum moss into a wire basket and attach the bottom flat suction like a portion of the new plant, with the fishing line and then tip the basket sideways so the long green forked part of the plant is looking straight forward, then hang it in a tree. Palm trees are not the best trees to use, not enough shade.
This plant will grow more and more and will eventually surround the entire basket, front and back like a ball. Attached to a board it will soon surround the entire board.
They mostly look the best when hanging. In 5 years you may have to change whatever is holding the plant in the tree as it becomes quite heavy.
The flat suction or shield part of the plant will turn brown; do not do anything to it. It is a sterile part of plant and keeps the plant attached to where it is living. The fertile leaves emerge from this section and look similar to antlers. A whole ball full of green antlers hanging from a tree is a beautiful sight. You are not constantly feeding or watering as it becomes mature.
You can feed it during the warm months with a 10-10-10 water-soluble fertilizer. A monthly feeding is enough. I do not feed mine that often.
One of my daughters and I were having breakfast outside on McGregor Boulevard, not far from the Fort Myers Country Club. There is a huge oak tree beside the outside tables and it has two huge staghorn ferns, hanging from large chains, each one a big ball gently swaying in the breeze that morning.
We were in a happy mood and decided it would be a fun place up there on top of that big ball. That brought to mind the recent antics of a well known celebrity whose idea of "fun" was to sing while swinging from a contractors wrecking ball. It brought to mind right plant, right place. She would have looked much more fanciful if she had chosen a more comfortable ride and received just as much attention representing a garden fairy being in the right place at the right time.
Just for the record, we were not enjoying any mimosa sips with our breakfast fantasy.
The staghorn, in reality, is very easy to grow here in Florida, and the bifurcatum species will be OK down to a temperature of 25 degrees, for a short period. The older the fern the more it will tolerate that low of a temperature and life in general.
I can understand that.
This plant is native to Australia, Africa and South America. It was a rare plant for a long time but much more plentiful nowadays, but expensive the older and more mature it is. Starting with just one newly transplanted plant mounted on a board is about $15, depending where you are shopping. They can reproduce in several ways. You will see spores on the underside of the antlers, as well as buds that you will see on the shield (base). These buds will develop naturally into new plants. Spore reproduction is not that easy.
You can find detailed instructions on mounting a staghorn and lots of tips and tidbits on the computer, or a book. You can always stop and admire someone's large plant and maybe get a baby to take home.
Has everyone notice that spring is here, officially. That means 70-degree mornings are on the way. Yea!
I do not have any tomatoes right now, blossoms only. I have my first Myer lemon tree doing well, lots of blooms, can't wait to get some of those huge lemons.
One thing I will not miss is my droopy queen palm fronds. Time for them to disappear. I always feel bad to have them cut about now because they will look so bare for awhile, however, with the possibility of big winds in a couple of months I do not need to be dodging flying palm fronds. Do not have palms cut by people who walk up the palms with spikes. Looks kind of interesting but the palms will never be rid of the holes they left behind and it is a possible opening for a passing disease.
Happy gardening till we meet again.
H.I. Jean Shields is a past president of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.