Fern Mania

I was watching the ever-funny Whoopi Goldberg the other night in Jumpin’ Jack Flash, laughing to myself at all those crazy 80s clothes we thought were so cool at the time, and it got me to thinking about fashion in the garden. Few people would consider gardening fashion conscious, but it really is: at various periods during the last hundred years, wildly variegated plants, boldly colored exotic annuals, even the rarest of tropical orchids became the objects of collectors’ unbridled passion, reaching unheard of heights of popularity, only later to fall completely out of favor as times and tastes shifted.  Perhaps of all these horticultural crazes though, the one that held the widest appeal, lasted the longest, and had the largest impact on the decorative arts as a whole, was the almost unbelievable passion for ferns that dominated British and American gardening circles until the First World War.fern

The mania for ferns all started innocently enough. Previous to 1840, ferns had been simply considered pleasant additions to woodland and wild settings, with little or no economical value, other than occasional and very limited medicinal use. Then in 1842 there appeared a little book by Nathaniel Ward, On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases, which showed for the first time how plants could be easily grown indoors where before most had soon perished. Ward’s solution, the terrarium, or Wardian case, as it quickly came to be known, proved the ideal place for growing previously temperamental specimens never before seen in the parlor. Chief among these were the many newly discovered ferns, which up to this time had been almost impossible to grow indoors. Their delicate tracery and interesting habits perfectly matched the Victorian taste for the new and unique, and multiple books on ferns and fern culture quickly appeared. (Over 400 were published in Britain alone before 1900) Within a few years, miniature glassed woodlands loaded with ferns began to grace drawing rooms of taste all over Europe and America, and outdoor ferneries, as specialty fern gardens were then called, became a standard feature in any garden with pretensions to the name.

But where to get one’s ferns? Few nurseries of the day carried them, and even fewer understood much about the fern’s primitive reproductive cycle. (One of the oldest plant species on earth, the Pteridophyta (to use the fern’s proper Latin name) employ a complicated two stage reproductive system involving spores instead of seeds.) The obvious answer to the supply dilemma was simply to collect ferns in the wild. Fern hunting became a social event, especially among the ladies, and day-long parties, complete with refreshments were organized for the purpose.  Basket-loads of ferns were collected, not only for transplanting to indoor and outdoor gardens, but for decorative purposes. Fern fronds were highly sought after table decorations, and were often dried and preserved through pressing for use in innumerable creative ways. Fern motifs became popular in prints, linens, pottery and even ironwork.

By the late 1800’s, so great had the demand for ferns grown, and so popular the hobby of gathering them, that that certain varieties began to be locally extinct in many part of Britain and America. (Collecting in the wild is now illegal in many places, and given the availability of ferns in commerce today, should in any case be discouraged)  Fortunately the huge demand for ferns led to the establishment of societies dedicated to the preservation and cultivation of the genus, which in turn helped to establish centers for commercial fern production. Soon ferns started to become commonplace in the garden; and then, as quickly as it had started, the craze was over. Relegated back to woodlands and other out of the way parts of the garden after 1914, ferns languished once more out of the gardening limelight until just a few years ago, when interest in this adaptive and versatile plant family began to increase substantially.

Ferns Culture at a Glance:
Despite the fact that ferns are perfect for those difficult, shady areas that almost every gardener possesses and ponders over, ferns are still very much underused in American gardens, probably because there’s common misconception that ferns are tender and difficult, and require damp, boggy sites. While there certainly are fussy ferns which require very specific growing conditions, many are quite hardy, easy-to-grow and adaptable to a variety of different gardening settings. In fact, the only real difficulty to having ferns in your garden may be deciding which ones to choose: the fern family is so large that it’s often hard for the beginner to know where to start. In general,  most members of the large Dryopteris and Polystichum families are good choices.

Adiantum Capillus-Veneris, dried and pressed

Adiantum Capillus-Veneris, dried and pressed

While the fern family is huge and diverse, some general cultural guidelines can still be given. Although most ferns are generally indifferent to pH considerations, they do require a fairly rich soil that while moist, is also well drained. (The humusy leaf mold of a wooded bank is ideal for many ferns, which is why they are excellent candidates for the wild garden.) Most ferns prefer some shade, and don’t do terribly well in very windy spots (Their fronds are surprisingly delicate and damage easily.)

One final note: although most ferns are very well behaved, generally staying the places where you put them and slowly expanding into larger clumps, some ferns, like the infamous hay-scented (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) can become quite invasive. Before making any unknown selections for your garden, its best to ask an expert or consult a good book: one of the best of recent years is Martin Rickard’s The Plantfinder’s Guide to Garden Ferns (Timber Press, 2000).

Drying and Using Ferns

Dried and pressed fern fronds are perfect for adding a delicate artistic touch to pictures, stationery, place cards, and decoupaged objects such as vases and lampshades. The process of drying and pressing the fronds is extremely simple: place the ferns between layers of an absorbent paper material such as newspapers, telephone directories, blotting paper, or tissues. Easier still is a specialized plant press of botanical blotting paper between layers of corrugated cardboard and newspaper, available from Forestry Suppliers Catalogue. Use a bit of masking tape on the stems to position the plants as desired. Apply weight for several days and then remove the tape. Recover and allow to dry fully (about one week) To create gorgeous artworks, simply glue the fronds to museum quality mounting board and frame appropriately.


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