Friday, January 31, 2014

Staghorn fern and Sago palm

While I'm trying to restore native plants to our yard, two of my non-natives are doing extremely well. An Australian plant–a staghorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum)–and a plant from a Japanese island–the cycad commonly called a sago palm (Cycas revoluta). The funny thing, neither plant is what it's name suggests.

The staghorn fern was a wedding gift over twenty years ago. I nearly killed it twice. Finally it is thriving because I stopped forcing it to live in the shade. The staghorn isn't really a fern at all and it was a revelation to see these epyphite plants growing in the wild in the Australian rainforest. While we might think of these plants as delicate forest dwellers, the staghorn is a sturdy plant that likes to live high in the forest canopy reaching for the sun.

The staghorn fern lives on other plants, usually trees. It settles into crevasses where water and nutrient rich plant debris collect. It doesn't have much in the way of roots and survives on the branches of others. You can see the leaves of a staghorn fern on the left side of this photo from Morris Gorge, north of Cairns, Queensland Australia.

Once I moved my staghorn onto a deciduous tree, where shade was provided in the heat of summer and sunlight was available in the winter, it begun to look like its rainforest relatives. The Australian rainforest has dry periods and seasons of rain, just like we do in California. Temperatures can dip into the 40s. While the staghorn would probably be more robust along the coast where the higher humidity would be more to its liking, it seems to feel somewhat at home on a slope where the evening breeze stirs the air.

The sago palm is not a palm at all, but a cycad. Cycads are amazing plants with an ancient heritage. Their relatives lived alongside some of the earliest land animals. This cycad's palm-like appearance often makes people think it belongs in a tropical rainforest. When I planted two in the yard several years ago I worried that hot dry summers might take a toll on these exotic plants. However the sago palm thrives in our Mediterranean climate as long as its roots are well-drained. 

Our plants receive little water other than rainfall. Even with this year's drought, they are robust.

While neither of these plants contribute food or habitat to our native creatures, they do provide visual beauty in the garden. Neither is invasive in our environment, so they offer an opportunity for something different in the yard.

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