Hardy Ferns in Britain
Ferns in Britain
Everyone knows a fern when they see one. Their characteristic foliage is to be seen in most parts of these islands, gracing our hedgebanks and woodlands with lacy fronds; but how few realize that ferns are amongst the oldest groups of plants existing on this planet, far older than the flowering plants, and it has been estimated that it is well over five hundred million years since ferns were first evolved in Palaeozoic times.
Great Britain owes an incalculable debt of gratitude to these primeval ferns and their allies which evolved from lower organisms in the sea to colonize the land, for the present wealth of this country depends in no small measure on the exploitation of the coal measures and reservoirs of natural gas which were formed from the ancestors of our British ferns and their related groups of flowerless plants.
In spite of this, they are a most successful group, for they have colonized the world from the seashores to the mountain-tops; and there are at least ten thousand species of fern living in the world today, descendants from those ancient species which luxuriated in the steamy jungles of the Palaeozoic age.
The life history of ferns is a most fascinating one, and it is only within the last hundred years that the mysteries of their sexual processes have been discovered. Until the advent of the microscope no one had any idea how they reproduced, and for this reason they were named the Cryptogams, which means ‘hidden marriage’. Unlike the flowering plants, they never produce seed, but have evolved their own life cycle, which is explained in a later section.
It was in the Victorian age that ferns attained their greatest popularity. Their graceful foliage and their willingness to thrive on the rockeries, the grottoes, and artificial ruins of those days were much appreciated by the gardeners of that era. Collectors the world over were sending in hundreds of new species to Kew and to nurseries which specialized in growing ferns alone, and country gentlemen spent much time exploring our own countryside, looking for new forms and varieties of our British species, in woodland and mountain, fen and Devonshire lane.
In this way about a thousand varieties of British ferns were amassed and described, some of them very lovely indeed, rivalling and indeed surpassing in beauty anything imported from abroad.
Apart from the hardy ferns, the large country and town houses all had their ranges of glass, their conservatories and winter gardens, where tender ferns were grown to great perfection and universally admired. Tender ferns, too, were very popular for decoration in the great house and cottage alike, but when gas lighting and heating became popular the majority of these house ferns gave up the ghost and were replaced by plants which could endure the poisonous fumes.
In the garden however the great collections were maintained until the 1914-18 war, but then the men with the knowledge had to leave their gardens to join the forces, many of them never to return. Lawns were ploughed up to grow , and the pleasure gardens were used for vegetables or allowed to run wild.
There still were great collections of hardy ferns here and there, though most of the greenhouse species were lost. Much of the gardening knowledge of the Edwardian days had been lost, the famous fern nurseries gradually disappeared. I can remember one or two myself where the stocks were dispersed and sold by auction and the land given over to building.
When the Second World War came along the growing of foodstuffs again engaged all the time of any gardeners left at home, and the pleasure gardens fell into neglect. The large estates were broken up and very few private collections of ferns were left. So a new generation has grown up which knows little of the wealth of beautiful ferns which once were the pride of hundreds of gardens, and even our largest nurseries today list but a few of the commonest kinds.
When ferns are grown, nine times out of ten it is the common Male Fern which is planted, and while this is a fine bold handsome species, ideal for planting in woodland and in large areas where its full value can be seen, yet there are scores of more suitable species and varieties which could add interest and beauty to our gardens.
Literally there are thousands of difficult corners in gardens up and down our land, corners where sunlight never falls, under trees and behind buildings, areas between houses, shady yards hemmed in by buildings and places where it is too dark and shaded for the majority of flowering plants to thrive or even exist at all. Such places often are just left as melancholy playgrounds for cats, and repositories for garden debris, old flower pots, canes and derelict garden tools. Yet these forsaken corners may well be places where ferns could be induced to grow and thrive, so transforming a previously arid waste into a place of beauty, bringing back memories of walks through shady woodlands and verdant glades.
Even the gloomy light wells and basements between town houses, receptacles for discarded cartons and other litter, could be adapted without too much effort to support an interesting collection of suitable species, perhaps grown in tubs and other containers, so bringing life and interest to seemingly hopelessly forlorn corners. Many of the stronger species, especially the deciduous kinds which would not be insured by winter smog and moisture-laden exhaust fumes, would stand up quite well in such apparently unpromising places.
Many of the varieties of Lady Fern, of the Male Ferns, and Buckler Ferns can be recommended for these difficult corners, but it would be advisable to avoid the use of evergreen species in such areas unless they can be protected in some way from the precipitation of injurious dirt during the winter months; or if they are in containers, they could be put in a cold frame or even in a cellar near a large window, until the spring comes round.
Quite a feature could be made of these light wells; it is probable that there is no , and attractive designs of paving could be used to cover any drab concrete work. A selection of good varieties of ferns in stone or other containers, underplanted with some of the dwarfer spring bulbs, perhaps even a clematis trained on a framework if enough light penetrates the well to keep it healthy, could transform such a dismal hole.
Where there is no garden the graceful habit and interesting forms of many kinds of fern make them ideal house plants, especially in a shady window which does not get a lot of sun. Where there is central heating a moist atmosphere around the ferns is essential for their well-being, but this is, of course, the case for the majority of plants, exceptingand other desert-loving kinds.
Such a moist atmosphere can be secured by standing the pots in waterproof trays containing pebbles, with water added up to the level of the pebbles, or the pots could be plunged partway into similar containers packed with moist peat.
One of the great advantages of hardy ferns is that they will thrive in pots in a cool room where more exotic, heat-loving subjects steadily deteriorate, becoming moribund and unattractive. They are trouble-free plants, requiring only to be kept moist. Their foliage remains in good condition for months, in some cases for years; they need little attention or fussing, and they very seldom suffer attack from pests.
The many varieties of the Hartstongue are particularly useful as pot plants. They have bright green evergreen fronds, frilled, crested, and fringed, and always look bright and glossy. The Maidenhair Ferns or Adiantums make lovely foliage during the summer, but die down in winter. Some of the dwarfer varieties of the Soft Shield Fern, such as Polystichum set. Congestum, which grows up to nine inches high and is evergreen, and the various forms of Polypodium vulgare cambricum and P.v.cornubiense, also evergreen, are excellent where ferns not too large are desired, in that the year-old fronds do not wither until the new ones start coming up.
Some of the larger varieties of Polystichum make excellent subjects for growing in larger containers in well-lit halls and stairways, as their evergreen fronds remain in good condition for a year or more when not exposed to the elements. Such varieties as Polystichum aculeatum pulcherrimum, which will make specimens up to three feet through, two and half feet high, are ideal in such places.