The Fern Nursery, Grimsby Road, Binbrook, Lincolnshire, LN8 6DH
Tel. 01472 398092
I though it might be nice to write a little about the history of my favourite plants, and include some comments on their evolution and their role in the greater ecology of the world. In the event as you will see the writing led me into far other realms far beyond what was intended, some of which I must say is hardly new, but I think that a lot of it is well worth the reiterating because it is so close to the heart of things.
Part 1. Prehistory.
How can I ever tell you about the history of my favourite plants, or make the reality of that histories time scale seem anything more than dream like, when what I have to tell you is that my plants are part of one of the oldest 'traditions' found on the earth, more ancient than any mountains or even the familiar pattern of the seas and continents which cover the face of a globe. And please note the word, tradition, because it is particularly meant.
The plot really began long ago, far beyond the reach of our history or even our dreams, in times where only the brave and far sighted could dare to look, not even in their wildest imaginations, but only with concrete proof tested by the hardest logic. Because the truth is that plants had barely climbed out of the oceans, and were just finding their feet on the land, way back in the era of time that the people who study such things call the Ordovician, when the story starts. And moving on to the land was certainly a hard and difficult challenge for all the plants, only newly descended from the aquatic seaweeds. As difficult as if humans were to try to farm and grow crops in the snowy wastes of Antarctica, using only the tools of a medieval peasant. Because on land, plants had to face all kinds of seemingly impossible challenges not even conceivable from the marine perspective. Even finding their own mineral needs was a challenge, since they could no longer count on the currents of the sea bringing it to them, nor could they use the buoyant water for support, they would have to try and find some other way of holding themselves up. But most of all they would have to find vital water from somewhere, now that they no longer lived in it, and more than that, they would have to find a way to hang on to it, despite drying winds and the ruthless heat of the sun, neither of which they had ever had to face in the sea.
It was perhaps true that they may have made a bit of a head start, since many of the seaweeds had no doubt managed to find ways of surviving for brief periods of exposure between the tides. But the would be land plants, still had to evolve a strong water proof skin, to hold their water in and stop themselves being burned in the sun. They also needed roots to find food and water, a plumbing system to transmit these things around their tissues, a woody structure to hold them up, and they had to find a way to reproduce now that the tides and waves would no longer obligingly carry their sperm and eggs. No less than five separate challenges to overcome.
That is a big ask from evolution which can only basically do one thing at a time, but this called for at least five separate items and all of them hard to do. It is little wonder therefore that they did not all come at once, and the whole business took a long time. We are told that the earliest land plants were probably the liverworts or something very like them. Just little films of green membrane, which clung to the moist shady hollows between stones and along river banks, hardly ever venturing more than a fingers length from the nearest water source, in exactly the way their descendent still do even today. Small moisture loving plants with simple creeping stems growing close to the ground, very like modern mosses soon no doubt followed the liverworts, but it was almost certainly a long time before they ventured far from the waters edge or attempted to stand upright.
Eventually however some plants began to grow a little taller and venture upwards with their stems into the light and air. Though they still kept their bases firmly in the shallow waters of marches and lakes, and their stems were short simple and plain, just little plain stalks barely sticking up above the surface, hardly daring to risk the wind and the sun, which were still no doubt quite dangerous to them. And for a very long time that was just about as much as any of the plants could manage. We can say that with some confidence because many of these early plants have been found in some numbers in the fossil record. Which is something only the longest lived and most common plants could ever achieve, because the chances that a plant may be fossilized is very slight. And following that the chances that those fossils will survive earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and every form of erosion, and then come to the surface, five hundred million years later, to then be found by someone who knows what they are looking at, is vanishingly small; making the national lottery seem like an extremely good bet. So that we can say with some confidence that plants like Psilophyton, and Rhynia, as some of them were called, must have been the dominant plant life on the earth for a long time indeed. The five main problems were not going to be solved in a hurry, and it would be a long wait before the earth saw a tree.
Yet eventually evolution mastered the art of making plants better adapted to the land. Stems grew stronger, skins thicker and better able to hold water, and roots went deeper finding better ways of fetching more of that scarce water from even further away, so that plants like the Clubmosses began to appear. And eventually there came a point where plants could manage to support and ventured to put out, more than just single bare stems a few centimetres high, and it was at sometime quite early around this point that the earliest plants which may have been ferns emerged. So that it was with the ferns, or something very like them, that for the first time the world saw good true leaves, of the sort that most humans would easily recognize as leaves, wide and green, delicate and beautiful, waving gently in the wind, and opening out from their buds to collect the best of the sun.
Real fronds, the sort of leaves for which we still value and revere in the modern ferns, stretched out across the world, in all the intricate detail and complex repeating patterns that many of them still show today. And it was no doubt quite a clever trick on evolutions part, at that time to make these repeating patterns, where a leaf could spread out to catch the sun by simply dividing and then dividing again, because this was perhaps the easiest way that could be found, for evolution to write into the plants hereditary, its DNA if you like, a program for spreading growth. Even today most ferns exhibit this kind of repeating growth which is basically a case of following the instruction, grow so far then divide again, a kind of growth that in geometry is called fractal. Think how much easier it is to say that, than it would be to draw a whole blue print for a fern frond down to the last detail.
The ferns also solved one of the other problems that the early land plants must have had, namely how to reproduce away from the water. And they did this with another clever trick, which was to separate the act of reproduction into two parts, no longer having sexual intercourse to increase and multiply, but now having sexual intercourse and then later multiplying. Developing a two stage life cycle with two quite different and distinct plants alternating one with the other. One plant, the fern that we all know and often see, grows tall and sheds spores, which increase and spread the fern wide across the whole of its environment, but when theses spores germinate and grow, they do not grow into another fern, but instead they produce a small plant almost like the ancestral liverwort, called a prothallus; and it is this plant growing small and modest, never much bigger than a fingernail, which has the sex. It is helped in this because it grows close to the ground and near to the moisture where the sperm can easily swim, it then in turn produces just a single fern from a single fertilized egg. Yet the fern grows tall and large up into the air, where once again it can produce and spread to the winds thousands of spores, thus accomplishing the multiplying part.
Years came and went, thirty million of them saw the world to the end of the Ordovician, then came the Silurian which lasted another thirty million. By the late Devonian sixty or seventy million years had passed since the first plants tentatively ventured towards life on land, a period even longer than the time that separates us from the distant mysteries we call the dinosaurs and think of as unimaginably ancient. But by the end of the Devonian era the first early forests had appeared on earth, and we can be sure that something like the ferns were now thriving on the land, even though they had to compete with their cousins the Lycopods or Club Mosses and the Equisetums or Horsetails which soon formed great forests.Well imagined I think in this old engraving.
By the great days of the Carboniferous a few ferns whose recognizable descendants are still alive today, had arrived, living beneath the canopy all through the glory days, when rain forests were the dominant vegetation, and plant life showed what it could truly do on land for the first time, and possibly as never again. This lasted for some thirty five million years before the new Permian era began, when large parts of the world turned to desert and conditions became increasingly harsh. Yet all through this difficult era the ferns not only survived but apparently diversified, making the most of hard times. Then at the end of the Permain the early eras of the ancient world came to an end in a great catastrophe called the Permian extinction. Which was perhaps the greatest disaster the world has ever seen. Far worse than the better known Cretaceous extinction which bought an end to the dinosaurs, then only sixty percent of the living families died out, but at the end of the Permian it was well over ninety percent. Almost every form of life that lived must have died out, or nearly so. Since no doubt even the few survivors were often descended from tiny handfuls of limping stragglers. Yet the ferns survived.
Then if the Permian was the dark age, which ended the early distant and seemingly innocent classical world of life, it also issued in life's middle ages, the age of the dinosaurs. Which just like our own middle ages had three parts while human history had its Low, Middle and High; the Mesozoic had its Triassic, the first and shortest of its divisions, the Jurassic, and the long Cretaceous, all of which ended in great extinctions. Yet the ferns survived and continued to diversify, despite having to learn to compete with their sister plants, the Cycads and Conifers both of which were now rising in power and distinction, and became the dominant flora of the Mesozoic.
Then a strange thing happened, at some time in the Jurassic a new group appeared, the Angiosperms or flowering plants, which suddenly arrived on the scene and branched out quite rapidly. It is thought that they were descended from the seed ferns, which looked very like the true ferns but had managed to produce seeds rather than the ferns spores. Possibly this was achieved by retaining the sexual stage, the Prothallus, attached to its parents fronds and thus forming the first protoflower. The seed ferns were also an ancient type of plant, and had been growing along side the true ferns for millions of years, though to what degree the seed ferns and the true ferns share a common ancestry, is not at present known. Sadly however we may never find out just what the relationship between the two was, even given the best modern techniques, since sadly the seed ferns became extinct, only shortly after they had given rise to the flowering plants, though whether the two events are related is also still a mystery.
The Conifers, and the Equisetums have both declined a little in recent ages from what they once were, though they still remain common, and important. The club mosses still continue to thrive though they are much less common than they once were, and those that remain are mostly small and retiring things which seem unlikely to ever form great forests again. Though I do know that prediction is a Tom fools game. The true ferns however still seem to have had a lot of potential left, and they continue to survive and diversify to this day, despite competition from the ever widening diversity of the flowering plants. They even enjoyed a brief late period of dominance in the world quite recently. If sixty five million years ago can be called recent, which I suppose it can in terms of the time scales we are talking about here.
For as everyone knows it was about sixty five million years ago today, give or take a week or two, that the most famous of all the mass extinctions occurred, at the end of the Cretaceous. When for whatever reason the dinosaurs, who had lived and thrived in one form or another for nearly two hundred million years, finally disappeared forever, along with many other plants and animals of the time. Whatever caused the extinction of so many species we can at least guess that times must have been really hard, and even the age old ferns must have struggled to survive for a while. Yet the odd thing is that the one type of fossil which has been found in real super abundance in the rocks immediately after the extinction, are fern spores. So much so that the short period just after the extinction has been given the name “Fern Spike,” by the people who work with ancient rocks. Why the ferns were the first things to recover after the great dying, we do not know, nor do we know why they prospered so well that it left a record in fossil form, or why they once more returned to their modest, but worthy ways again. All that this whole strange episode really shows is, how unpredictable and often counter-intuitive history can be.
What is notable about all this though is the sheer persistence of the ferns. Not only surviving, but adapting, changing, prospering, diversifying and always moving on, through some five great ages, each larger than any time span we humans can possibly hope to imagine, though many more climate changes, a dozen or more extinction events, and the endless shifting of the continents, which to us seem solid and immovable, yet never in all that time loosing the basic formula which made ferns what they were, and are.
How then is it, that little green plants, noted for being soft and delicate, can outlive ten dynasties of mighty beasts, whole ranges of mountains, and even stand by and watch while continents drown. The short and easy answer of course is hereditary, unlike the mountains, living plants are able to renew themselves, producing endless new generations, each one renewing the vigour of the species, and each in turn pacing on the magic formula to the next generation, while the dead mountains can only stand and endure they can reproduce and evolve. Which means, perhaps amazingly, that today you can still grow ferns in you garden, belonging to genera like Osmunda, whose origins can be traced back all the way to the Carboniferous; and those fossils do not look in any major sense in any way different from those that you will see in the same genera today. Sometimes gardening just seems such a marvellous pursuit.
Part 2. Human History.
The human heritage associated with ferns is extremely rich, perhaps richer than any group of plants except for the culinary and medical herbs, which is saying a lot for plants which can be so easily overlooked in the modern rush. I can only provide here a little sample of fern history and lore, while hoping that you will be inspired to delve further, for if you are at all like me, then I am sure that you will feel that a great deal is added to the pleasures of growing ferns, by the rich romance of their almost limitless history.
One of the first things that happened when humans began to change the landscape, was that the Spleenworts, or members of the Asplenium genus of small pretty alpine ferns, began to find that things were changing to their addvantage, and they are probably more common in the artificial environment of walls, than they ever were on natural rocks and cliffs. They found that the artificial cliffs and rock faces made by humans suited them very well, perhaps even better than their wild habitat. So that as soon as people started to build walls they began to thrive and prosper as never before, being among the commonest of wall plants.
Early on in their history humans soon began to make use of ferns, especially for medicine, so that the Spleanworts were able to repay their debt to us, for building all those walls, since at least classical times. As you might guess, the genus Asplenium gets its name from the use of one of its former members, Asplenium cererach, now Ceterach officinalis, to treat diseases which involved enlargement of the spleen. Apparently a common symptom in the fever-ridden ancient world. Indeed so potent was it A. ceterach believed to be, that it was thought a large enough dose could make the spleen shrivel and disappear completely.
However, perhaps the most common uses of ferns in ancient herbalism was as vermifuges, for the purpose of expelling intestinal worms, possession of which seems to have been a very common ailment in the past, judging by the shear number of plants employed for this purpose. It must also have been considered a very serious ailment for such desperate cures, as many of the ferns used such as Polypodiums and our common British native Male Fern, Dryopteris filix-mas, are thought in modern medical opinion to be highly poisonous.
Fortunately the Male Fern at least did find other, literally, more attractive herbal uses, and was from medieval times onwards, the principle source of the “fern” scents, which are extracted from its ground rhizome. The fragrance is present to a lesser degree in the Male Ferns fronds, and also in the foliage of a few other ferns like the fronds of Gymnocarpium robertianum, the Limesone Polypod. It could however be a challenge to obtain the benefits of these scents in the garden, as they are of the elusive bushed leaf type, readily available to the nursery man with a tray of plants on the potting bench, but much less obvious in the fresh air. Male Fern had perhaps the widest range of herbal uses found for any fern, some of which would hardly get passed by a modern clinical trial, being regarded in folklore as a powerful love potion among other things.
It also seems that Male Fern was according to folk lore, the main source of the so called “fern seed”, which it was supposed, had the power to make people invisible. This idea may have arisen, because as most people know, ferns do not in fact have flowers or seeds; however to the medieval mind it seemed logical that all plants must have seeds. Therefore, since no one had ever set eyes on a fern seed, it was concluded that the seeds themselves must be invisible, and naturally had the ability to pass this property on. However fern seed could never have been very popular or widely used, as if mythology is to be believed, it was only shed at midnight, on midsummers night, and then only to people who had gone through a series of elaborate and dangerous rituals to prepare themselves beforehand.
The value of ferns in the past was however by no means limited to the herbal and mythical, nor to their obvious uses for such things as animal bedding and insulation. For in the days when every natural resource was necessarily husbanded thriftily, numerous economic values were found in ferns. Bracken fronds for example were widely cut and burnt to make the soda needed for glass and soap making industries, and some kilns built for this purpose, can still be seen in the lake district, where this was a major industry, and the accompanying structures were in consequence built large and durable. At the same time mainly in the East Equisetums or Horsetails, the common wayside weeds which have a similar botany to ferns, were needed in such large amounts for polishing silverware and other small items, in the cutlery and toy trades, that Britain was forced to import extra plants from Holland, under the name of Dutch Rush.
It is not known if medieval people grew the ferns that they needed in their herb gardens, or merely collected them when wanted from the wild. But it is certain that some ferns, though sadly not the wild natives, were highly regarded as garden plants, by as early as the seventeenth century. Interest was stimulated greatly by many new introductions mainly from the New World, which were brought in by plant hunters like the Tradascants. A lot of these ferns such as, Adiantum pedatum the Goosefoot Maidenhair, a really interesting and quite tough garden plant with strange fronds resembling tattered umbrellas, were no doubt quite hardy in British gardens, but little was known of them, and being regarded as exotica, most went into the orangeries and hot houses of the very rich. While all the time just over the garden walls the British native ferns, a flora just as exciting if not quite as large as that of North America, was passed by without much regard.
That soon changed however, for by the nineteenth century the natural sciences were at the hight of fashion. Especially with the now growing middle classes, for whom a little dilettante botany was the ideal way to prove your social credentials. The ferns as a plant group suited this mood perfectly and by high Victorian times ferns were by far the most fashionable plants, to be both admired in the wild, and grown in the garden; taking over from the roses that had been at the hight of fashion in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and being replaced by alpines and orchids in the later half.
Naturally, as most of these people could not afford to travel abroad, they turned to the native ferns to fulfil most of their needs. This may not have been good for the ferns themselves, since by the hight of the so called “Fern Craze”, thousands of Victorians were venturing out to the hills and lanes aided by the new railways, and armed with specially made fern trowels in search of plants. Even if you could not, or did not, care to find your own ferns, then you could employ the services of professional “Fern Hunters”, to do it for you, naturally for a price. It was of course always the rarest that were most prized and collected, and they were almost certainly the quickest to die when they reached the cities. So that it is almost certainly the case, that our fern flora has still not fully recovered to this day.
All the more fuel was lent to the craze by the new fashion for greenhouses, and Wardian Cases, or Terrariums, often in those days called Fern Cases, which were by now becoming affordable by many people; and which, in theory at least, would enable you to grow even the difficult and tender Filmy Ferns, in a cold dark and smoky city home. The idea of the semi sealed indoor cloche, or bottle garden, was first conceived accidentally by Dr. Nathanial Ward after whom it was named, when he placed the chrysalis of a moth in a glass jar to hatch out, with which he also placed some soil to keep it moist. When he returned months later he found that a fern had grown in the soil. This was a striking irony, as ferns were the just the plants the Doctor had been trying to grow, without any success for years, in his cold, dark and highly polluted Victorian home. He then realized that plants, and ferns especially, would grow very well indeed in a nearly sealed glass container. At first the idea was taken up most quickly by plant hunters and shipping companies, as a way of shipping live plants overseas, but soon Wardian Cases and Terariums had become extravagantly elaborate pieces of furniture to grace the Victorian home, thereby further fuelling the demand for ferns, still often considered to this day by far the best plants for such situations.
By the middle of the century ferns were getting everywhere, you could literally fill your house with them, not just in pots and terrariums, but even printed on your curtains, wallpaper, and tablecloths. You could even see their images in the cast iron brackets, which held up the roofs of many public buildings. While there was of course, only one group of plants that could conceivably be used as table decorations, at the fashionably serious dinner party, by any hosts with even the least pretensions.While for any Victorian with the least social status a fernery in the garden was a must have, and many of these must have been truly beautiful, in a strange and to our eyes now quaint manner. As the turn of the century photo below shows. (Note the rustic hanging baskets and the "Pulmonite" artificial rockwork.)
But as you know, it always ends in tears, and as the new century approached a reaction set in, suddenly what was at the peak of fashion, was now everything that was old fashioned. From being the most wanted of garden plants, ferns fell to being the most despised. As the word Victorian began to become associated with words like “fusty” and “fussy”, so ferns began to be associated with everything that was bad about the old styles of gardening; and no one even wished to have them carved on to their coffin any longer. There was however one good legacy, the Victorians interest in the rare and unusual, had driven them to collect all the monstrous and genetically deformed plants they could find, the greater the deviation from the natural species the better, and if you could not find the extreme, then you could indulge in ever longer, and preferably Latin names, to ever smaller variations. In this way some of our native ferns yielded huge numbers of varieties such as Polystichum setiferum the Soft Shield Fern, which gave over four hundred, and most of all the Lady Fern, Athyrium filix-femina, with over seven hundred. Yet among all the plethora of plants they grew, inevitably many were first class garden forms. Fortunately when once the craze was over, the best forms were the ones which tended best to survive in gardens, in the hands of the few remaining enthusiasts; until slowly over time, all was forgotten and forgiven. So that today some of the finest garden varieties, especially of our native ferns, still date from the Victorian era. In particular it seems to be the wild finds of the Victorians that are the most exciting. Such as Athirium filix-femina 'Frizelliae' with its charming nickname The Tatting Fern, so called because the reduced bobble like foliage of this accommodating dwarf form, resembles the thread work that was used for trimming handkerchiefs and cushions, though it is more correctly called 'Frizelliae' for the Mrs Frizell, who accidentally found the plant growing wild in Ireland. Or the plant which takes its name from the reigning monarch herself, Athyrium filix-femina 'Victoriae', found by a student named James Cosh who stepped on the plant while jumping over a wall, and gave the original to be planted at Buchanan Castle in Stirlingshire. It gets its name because the leaves or ‘pinna’ which break from the main stem in pairs at an angle to each other, form as they do so a ‘V’ - for Victoria of course. It is a truly striking fern because as the leaves leave the stem at an angle, they cross over each other to form a diagonal lattice effect. Additionally, ‘Victoriae’ is a tall, strong growing and upright plant, with a crested edge to the frond, and altogether a real sense of style, which makes it eminently garden worthy.
Lastly it is necessary to bring things up to date, and most of all to look for new beginnings. In recent years many exciting things have begun to happen with ferns and a revival of interest is really under way. Many exciting new foreign species, which would not have been available to any but the wealthiest of Victorians have started to appear in our nurseries and garden centres, bringing with them all sorts of exciting new things, like coloured fronds, and tree ferns at almost affordable prices, which were just not available before. Not only that but the new interest in the design aspects of gardens has helped to bring ferns to the fore, as many of them are truly, designer plants of the first water. While hopefully we now have enough respect for nature not to go out digging up our wild flora, just to fill our gardens, especially as it is now so easy to get what we need from the nursery trade, and raising them from spores is now made relatively simple by modern technology. While perhaps let us hope this time in our much more eclectic age they will not become objects of obsession, but will simply take their place in gardens for the genuine use, interest, and beauty and pure romance, that they really have.