History of Growing Ferns in Great Britain
One of the fascinating characteristics of our British ferns is their innate ability to ‘sport’. Having once departed from the normal, there seems to be no limit to the variations which can develop from these sports when theirare sown, and some of our loveliest ferns have come into being in this way. The more widely fern-growing is practised, the more likely is it that some of the beautiful varieties of the past may crop up again, for it is true that at least sixty per cent of the old varieties have been lost and the modern generation of gardeners is hardly aware of their loss.
A distant tragedy in the fern world was the loss of the late W. C. Cranfield’s collection. A former President of the Fern Society, he had amassed probably what was the finest and most comprehensive collection of British fern varieties ever known in this country, or any other. He had secured the collections of several old fern enthusiasts when they died, and added them to his own, and cherished them. In his will Mr Cranfield made what he considered adequate precautions for their wellbeing and maintenance as a collection, but he was over-optimistic. On his death a comparatively small number of his treasures were taken away and planted, and today it is doubtful if more than a dozen or so plants are left, or indeed any at all. The land had been sold for building, and the greater part of the collection was bulldozed away and destroyed, including hundreds of unique varieties which may never be seen again.
Many of our national botanic gardens, and those attached to the science departments of universities and colleges, maintain interesting collections of such species and varieties as are useful for classwork and research, but nothing of a comprehensive nature embracing the hardy species is to be seen, though large collections of tender ferns may be kept. These gardens are maintained largely by student labour, as part of their training, and because one group of students succeeds another, because of the present short working week, cut up by lecture periods and free weekends, there is no continuity of interest in the many groups of plants which must be grown.
Here we have a large group of plants which cannot be surpassed for furnishing dark and shady parts of our gardens, plants which have inherent grace of form, ease of cultivation, require a minimum of upkeep, are immune to most, and provide a never-ending source of interest as garden plants or for house decoration. Their infinite variation of form adds to their absorbing interest. Their range of texture and hue, their adaptability to all kinds of adverse conditions, and the way in which they can be utilized to enhance, by contrast, so many other garden plants make them an integral part of any well-planned planting scheme.
While there will always be a nucleus of very keen amateur growers of ferns, the important thing is to widen the scope of the average gardener, to persuade him that he is missing something by not growing these charming plants. I believe the time has come for a renewal of interest. One other reason for the fern’s eclipse is the availability, nowadays, of shade-loving plants of attractive habit and often with colourful bloom and a long flowering season; to say nothing of the ever-growing numbers of alpines, wall and rock-plants occupying crannies which a hundred years ago would have held a Male Fern of Hartstongue.