At Paiko, staghorn ferns are one of our signature plants. Striking and easy to care for epiphytes, these guys look espescially cool when mounted on wood- we call it our vegan version of deer antlers. The staghorns we carry in the shop are cultivated and mounted locally by our friend Kevin Whitton. This week I met up with Kevin at his greenhouse up on the tip of St Louis Heights to learn a little bit more about him, his collection, and staghorn ferns.
What got you started growing staghorn ferns?
I grew up in Huntington Beach, California, and my Dad grew ferns as a hobby, so ever since I can remember I would help my Dad. He had these big fern balls, and big plaques with the stag horns on them, and I would have to help him break [the ferns] up and put them onto smaller plaques, and he would give me allowance money for doing it, so that was cool. I would help him, and I would basically just learn from working with him. I’ve always been a plant geek and enjoyed growing plants for fun.
When I came here, obviously I couldn’t bring any plants from California with me. The place we moved into had a stag horn fern growing on the back of the house on a board. Someone had left it, & I was like “Oh this is great!”. From there I’d look on Craigslist and someone would be selling a ball and I’d buy it. My daughter, this tree fell at her preschool and it had stag horn ferns all over it; I just harvested them one morning after I dropped her off from school. Just like that I was able to build up my collection again, and once you get it going they kind of propagate themselves.
How quickly do they propagate?
I guess you could say that different species send out what’s called “pups”. There’s one plant on a thing and as it gets happy and mature it’ll start a pup which… here (Indicating a nearby plant), boom that’s a brand new plant. Then when they get a certain size you can break them off and mount them. Different ones grow at different speeds, and it’s really hard to say how fast it happens, because one summer it’ll blow up and then another time it may take a while, it’s not just like every three months one comes up.
You refer to this as a collection, what’s your process in collecting and is there a specific goal?
Basically I mount the stag horns on found wood, so it’s a creative outlet, and that kind of makes it so there’s not really an endpoint. It’s hard to find [ferns], but when you do, boom. If I score, I score, right? I’ll cut a bunch of boards in an afternoon and have them ready. Or like this thing (indicates a massive fern), I’ve had this ball for four years and I cut them off, and they grow back, and in a couple of years I can harvest from there again. I also collect different species, but I haven’t been able to put any in the store yet, because I haven’t really gotten any big enough to sell. I’m hoping in another year, they will be ready to go. Very few people in Hawaii do this, so I have to order [new species] from the mainland. Some of my Dad’s friends have become substantial collectors and so they’ll send me a box of stag horns, but the thing is they don’t travel well. They are in the dark for three days, and it's probaly cold on the airplane, so I’ll order maybe five species and three will survive.
I am trying to collect unique species and have those become available at Paiko in the future. It is a slow process, but hopefully in 6 months or a year we can offer people in Hawaii something different than the standard fern they find all the time, and that would be fun.
The thing is that stag horns are an introduced species, but they are not invasive species. They don’t spread rapidly, and they don’t take over. People think that just because they grow on trees they are an invasive species, but that’s not correct. They’re just an epiphyte, so they grow on rocks, trees, they don’t need soil.
What is your favorite botanical spot on island?
Trees are like my favorite thing in the botanical world, and I love the trees at Foster Garden. There’s the huge earpod tree on the main lawn right by the pavilion, and by the big orchid garden there are massive trees, that’s awesome. I also like Koko Crater Botanical Garden for their plumeria grove, I take my girls out there and we collect the fallen plumeria flowers and my oldest one makes lei with them, it’s great. It’s really beautiful out there and it smells great. (Koko Crater) also has all the dry land species, they have some really weird stuff.
Written By: Hannah Grgich