The garden is a work in progress, well more work than progress if I’m honest, but I slid into summer a few days ago when I cut most of my tulips back in my rose and peony beds and planted several different cosmos I’d raised in 4 x 6 modular trays. The change was remarkable because the purple, mauve and orange medley of tulips, mainly ‘Negrita’, ‘Shirley’ and ‘Ballerina’, gave way to the coppery foliage of roses and P. lactiflora hybrids with not a flower in sight. How comforting foliage and bud can be.
I’ve been mesmerised by my hardy ferns which are late in producing their new fronds this year. The dark wiry stems and delicate parasols Adiantum aleuticum ‘Miss Sharples’ is so elegant in the woodland border. She needs complete shade and shelter, or she will scorch and burn. Fern guru Martin Rickard, writing in The Plantfinder’s Guide to Garden Ferns published in 2000, recalls how it was named by Reginald Kaye who was given the fern by Miss Sharples and put a label in it to remind him from whence it had come from. Another nurseryman collected spores from the plant, unknown to him, and started selling it under the name ‘Miss Sharples’. The name stuck and it was propagated in numbers by the Dutch and it’s still widely available because it’s micro-propagated.
Micro-propagation is good news and bad news when it comes to ferns. It makes them far more available, but the fern can look very different once it’s been chopped up and grown in glass flasks under light and heat. Growing the spores in flasks is no better either. The flasks rotate and the top growth is even, but the roots are sometimes sparse. It also changes the structure of the frond. However at the Malvern Show I picked up a sporeling of ‘Miss Sharples’ from Fernatix (www.fernatix.co.uk) although I’m not sure whether it was traditionally raised. There were half a dozen for sale, all slightly different, and I tried to pick the best one.
Close to ‘Miss Sharples, in the garden here, is another sporeling raised from an iconic fern called Polystichum setiferum ‘Pulcherrimum Bevis’. This highly desirable fern was hard to acquire before the age of ‘microprop’ and I had mine from the iconic Sibylle Kreutzberger who once gardened at Sissinghurst with her partner Pam Schwerdt. It took five years to settle and is now magnificent. This handsome fern was found in Devon by a gentleman called Bevis in 1876 and he was drawn to the fronds which taper “at an acute angle” to use Martin’s words. Mr Bevis removed it from the hedgerow near Axminster, in order to show it to a local fern expert, and it’s never been seen since in the wild.
‘Pulcherrimum Bevis’ doesn’t set spores generally, so it has always been a treasure divided and passed round the very few. Luckily the rootstock splits freely, making it easy to divide. It was inevitable then that ‘Pulcherrimum Bevis’ would be put to the knife and get ‘micro-propped’ so that nurserymen could sell it. However the resulting plants were different, even to my eye. One lacier version, said to raised from spores in Holland c. 1987, was named ‘Green Lace’ and in the mid-1990s it was available from some British nurseries via micro-propagation. I failed to buy it, I know not why, and by the time I knew I wanted to it had broken down in tissue culture and was no longer being sold. Luckily a fern-growing gardener called Alistair Urquhart gave me a division and now it’s doing very well.
The trouble is I find ferns difficult to name, but lots of men seem to be able to visualise the fronds and the names trip off their tongues. Apparently there’s a link between testosterone and spatial ability that gives them the upper hand. Worse still we ladies have an added handicap, for a German scientific study found that ‘spatial intelligence’ was seriously affected by the female hormone oestrogen. This obviously explains why I often get the wrong saucepan lid when cooking. There is too much oestrogen flowing round my system! I need to be more manly in order to recognise the intricate differences ferns present you with.
I have managed to understand the recurring descriptive additions to fern names such as cristata (crested), crispum (frilly-edged), crenatum (scallop-shaped), frizelliae (very crinkled like the lettuce), fimbriatum (with a small fringe), congestum (busy and rather like the M25 on a Friday evening), grandiceps (large-headed) and saggitato (arrow-shaped). I’m not so sure of the difference though between ‘Grandiceps’ and ‘Grandiceps Askew’ however, the latter described by the Fern King Martin Rickard as neat, but rare. It’s possibly only a couple of glasses of wine between upright and askew. And that’s where I may be going wrong, for I’m teetotal.
I do have a favourite fern and it’s Wallich’s fern, Dryopteris wallichiana. It has a huge range geographically, being found in Hawaii, Mexico, Jamaica and the Himalayas. The Himalayan form, the most desirable, has almost black bristles on the stems and these are very noticeable when the fiddle-back crosiers unfurl in spring. It’s fabulous.
Nathaniel Wallich (1786 – 1854) was a surgeon and botanist who worked in Calcutta and many of the plants he collected were named after him. They include Geranium wallichianum and Lilium wallichianum. His herbarium, known as the Herbarium of the Honourable East India Company, is the largest separate herbarium at Kew. It contains 9149 ‘species’ and a total of 20,500 gatherings, mostly plants from the Indian subcontinent.
Wallich’s fern was found in the wild near Darjeeling, by fern fanatic Christopher Fraser-Jenkins who’s the author of a book on Indian dryopteris written in 1986. He immediately subdivided it into subsp. himalaica and nepalensis. What chance have I got against these testosterone charged men!