Tree ferns
Plants I love

Return of the fern

There’s a word for people who are crazy for ferns – pteridomaniacs. Pteridomania reached epidemic proportions in Victorian England. Ferns were everywhere. I especially like this sign of the times:

Fronds unfurled over giant crinolines, along iron-work benches, on pottery and glassware and paper products. Ferns were grown indoors and out, in ferneries and fern houses. Men and women joined fern-gathering groups and tramped through the countryside collecting so enthusiastically that many of England’s 45 native species were threatened. Yep, ferns and flirting. (Read more about England’s version of tuliopmania in Fern Fever: The Story of Pteridomania by Sarah Whittingham.)

Ferns and flirting

Then the century turned, people rejected Victorianism and its passions and fern-love wilted. Time for a comeback. Meet Dwayne and Kylie Stocks, from specialist fern nursery, Verdigris.

Verdigris fern nursery

While not wearing any fern-related clothing when we meet (that I could see!), Kylie and Dwayne Stocks are modern pteridomaniacs. Verdigris, lists more than 100 ferns on its website, and there are many more than that growing in pots and in display gardens on the 10 acres of hillside halfway up the Clyde Mountain between Bateman’s Bay and Braidwood that the Stocks call home. Kylie describes herself as the scientist and propagator, Dwayne as the collector and cataloguer. For a collector, ferns offer great finds. There are some 800 native to Australia, and another few thousand around the world, many of them with mad natural variations that cause their fronds to feather or crest or curl up or down, like the parsley fern here, Crypotogramma crispa. (It was these variations, what the Victorians called ‘monstrosities’, that galvanised the era’s amateur collectors).

Parsley fern

Ferns have a fascinating sex life too, which might have been another lure for the Victorians. They reproduce by spore. The spore pattern on the underside of mature leaves is the fingerprint of the fern and the way to identify its family. When the spore fall, one in a few million germinates and grows into a tiny heart-shaped plant called prothalia. It is these plants that produce the male and female sex organs than enable the fern to reproduce.

So far so nerdy. What about ferns as garden plants? The big mistake gardeners make, says Kylie, is in assuming ferns need a shady moist environment. While some do, and most resent a strong hot wind, there are ferns to fill every ecological niche from the desert to the arctic so they’ll solve garden problems from dry shade to bog and, given that many are epiphytic, to no-soil positions as well. The key, she says, is to pick the right fern for the conditions. Get it right and you get, for almost no effort at all, elegant arching fronds with the curling lacy delicacy that enraptured the Victorians. To match a spot with the right fern, explore, catch Kylie and Dwayne Stock at the Plant Lovers Fair at Kariong on the central coast in September, or make an appointment to visit the nursery on 4478 1311.

And because I can’t resist, here are a few more mad fern pix:

Tassel fernThe tassel fern, Huperzia.

Silver fern

One for the netballers, this is New Zealand’s silver fern, Cyathea dealbata.


And this is the humble Doodia, seen on escarpments and roadsides all over the south coast.




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