The Victorians LOVED ferns, finding or creating hundreds of cultivars of their own native ferns. While horticultural fashions change, the legacy of Pteridomania remains strong in the UK. In early July I traveled to the English Lake District to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the British Fern Society. With members world-wide, I had the pleasure of meeting fellow fern enthusiasts from UK, Europe, Mexico, the US and Australia. Together we spent a week touring spectacular gardens, exploring wild places in search of ferns, and sharing knowledge, experiences and plant material.
Founded in the Lake District in 1891, the early days of the Society were dominated by a focus on the horticultural aspects of growing ferns. Later, as fern taxonomy and ecology became an interest for scientists, fern botany became a stronger element of the Society. Based on my experience at the 125th celebration, I’d say there’s currently a very healthy balance of interests. Our days were chalk-full from morning until night with field trips and presentations. Happily chauffeured around – no one wants me driving on the left side of the road! – I was deeply impressed by the variety of sites that were organized for us to visit. Wild places, National Trust properties, and amazing private gardens were all on our agenda.
An avid hiker, I was thrilled for the chance to get out and see ferns in their natural habitats. The English Lake District (Co. Cumbria) offers a stunning variety of options. From mountain tops to lakeside forests we found many types of ferns. The UK has a much milder climate than Nova Scotia, for sure, but I’m always amazed by the number of native ferns we share in common. It was a great pleasure for me to visit the recently found locations for one of these ferns, Northern Holly Fern (Polystichum lonchitis) at a place called Hutton Roof. A fern of higher elevations, Northern Holly Fern is also found in Nova Scotia in the Cape Breton Highlands. A rare fern in both places, it was wonderful to see it, along with cute little spleenworts and wall rue, peaking out from between broken pieces of limestone “pavement” (an ankle-breaking terrain, so watch your step!).
Treks to wild spots were interspersed with tours of fantastic gardens, both private and those managed by non-profit groups. Holehird Gardens, in Windermere, is the botanical garden of the Lakeland Horticultural Society. The stunning views of the mountains around the Lake District from the parking lot alone were enough to knock my socks off! Here we saw the national collection of Polystichum species and cultivars. Holehird also holds the national collection of Astilbes and has an amazing rock garden and alpine houses – all volunteer run!
Another garden with great views and an equally great collection of ferns is Brantwood, the home of 19th century writer and social reformist John Ruskin. Set on a hill above a scenic lake the estate’s 250 acres include many unique gardens, but it was the 250 fern varieties that drew our group up through the woodland maze. Before Ruskin the estate was owned by W.J. Linton, another amateur botanist and author of the first book on Cumbrian ferns. The collection includes a diversity of British native species and many interesting cultivars of them. Hardy exotic ferns are also represented, including the impressive Wallich’s Wood Fern (Dryopteris wallichiana), Oriental Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia orientalis) and our own, comparably demur, Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides).
Last, but certainly not least, was a wonderfully memorable half-day at Sizergh Castle & Gardens (say “Sizer”). Managed by the charity National Trust, Sizergh is still home of the Strickland family who’ve lived there for 750 years. This garden holds the national collections of Hart’s Tongue and Royal Ferns, with many interesting and rare cultivars. We moved seamlessly through a formal topiary allee, explored the early 20th century limestone rock garden and its pools, meandered along nature trails, and then on to the kitchen garden filled with fragrance and colour. Following past over-flowing perennial borders we finally arrived at the piece de resistance – the official opening of the newly established Stumpery!
For those not familiar with stumperies, they were a Victorian invention designed as a way to grow and display ferns and other shade-loving plants with great drama. Whole tree stumps – trunk, roots and all, were flipped upside down and planted in the ground creating many nooks and crannies for planting. These were meant to mimic the effect of ancient trees fallen in the forest that persist and eventually provide humus-rich, moisture retentive homes for woodland plants.
The ceremony included comments by dignitaries and a ribbon cutting by Sue Olsen, godmother of all things ferny and author of my go-to resource, The Encyclopedia of Garden Ferns. After the ribbon fell we were given first rights to wander the new garden, which was filled to the brim with interesting plants skillfully displayed under, around and over age-old stumps reclaimed from a nearby highway construction site. From the tiniest spleenworts to sizable tree ferns this fern garden has it all, complete with rounds of logs engraved with images of ferns. We received miniature pendant versions as keepsakes.
All-in-all, one of my best fern trips ever! Wonderful people, scenic locales, great learning, oh-so-many ferns…and it didn’t rain the whole time!