Monday, January 20, 2014

Home fernishings

Scientists tell us that ferns have been around for as long as 400 million years.  

Eons ago, before much of anything interesting existed, ferns covered much of the prehistoric terrain. In the company of club moss, horsetails and other ancient plants, ferns flourished, died and decayed, creating a cycle that possibly contributed to the formation of rich coal deposits.

Because they were hardy and adaptable, ferns evolved in all but the world’s most hostile climates. Along the way, a host of diverse varieties appeared -- some were water babies, others epiphytic. 

More than 10,000 species of ferns have been identified, and many more await discovery. Approximately 200 species, including the familiar Christmas fern we have here in the mountains, still populate the temperate areas of the United States.

Prior to the 18th century, naturalists knew little about the intimate activities of ferns. Spores were not associated with reproduction, and since no one ever observed any seeds, people concluded ferns possessed supernatural powers. In time, the delicate plants were linked to good luck and the ability to make one’s self invisible.

In medical circles, ferns were used to treat lunacy, stop bleeding and cure baldness. Ferns were also employed to deter witches and predict the future. Even in recent times, a relative of the decorative rabbit’s-foot fern has been touted as a potential cure for cancer. 

Today, for the most part, ferns are valued as airy, ornamental accents – when they decide to cooperate. Modern in-house fern cultivation is about as predictable as it was in the 1840s when plant enthusiasts first attempted to grow ferns indoors. The Victorians quickly discovered what we know all too well in 2014: some ferns make it; others don’t.

So if ferns have been around for more than 400 million years, why can’t most of us keep a plant with such a track record looking good for even a few weeks? The answer isn’t as complicated as it seems. The fact is we can successfully raise ferns – if and when.

If we have the proper light, and when we select the right plant. If we provide adequate humidity, and when we water at the correct times. It can be a delicate balancing act.

Experts agree that light and humidity are the keys to success. In most homes across the country, humidity levels hover around 25 percent. A 40 to 75 percent level is necessary to keep ferns fit and healthy. In addition, ferns despise cave-like conditions. They need light – bright light, and a dose of liquid houseplant fertilizer monthly, except in winter.

In choosing the right home for your ferns, your best bet is a well-lit bathroom. The Boston, staghorn, maidenhair, button, petticoat, and “footed” ferns are all ideal for the bath area. The Boston fern and rabbit’s-foot fern in particular will thrive in a bathroom with good southern exposure.

In other areas of the house, choose a window with bright afternoon sun and set the plant on a tray of pebbles to increase humidity. The tray should be as big as the spread of the plant so water can evaporate around the leaves. For homes with bright morning light, the bird’s-nest and holly fern are good choices.

Once you have the right humidity, the right light and the right fern, you must tackle the tricky watering problem. Plant manuals plainly state that when leaves turn yellow or brown, the fern is a victim of over- or underwatering. Which one? You can either cut back or step up your watering program. If the plant dies, you guessed wrong.   

To avoid these problems, try filling your plant saucer to the brim with water, then let your fern sip it up all week. Since most ferns come from moist environments, they don’t mind having their feet wet. As an alternate method, water your plants thoroughly until the excess runs into the saucer two or three times a week. 

Whichever method you choose, mist your plants occasionally and be sure to give them a dose of fish emulsion monthly. They’ll thank you for it.

By now, you may be agreeing with the experts that raising ferns is definitely a challenge and probably an art. Then why do so many of us still feel compelled to adopt a fussy fern?
The answer begins at the garden center. Every fern on display looks lush, green and irresistible. It’s easy to envision one of these healthy specimens gracing some lackluster corner of the den or bathroom. So home it goes. Then, even if it eventually winds up looking like a faded watercolor, the desire to try again triumphs.

Hope continues because they’re beautiful, they’re unique, and because no summer porch is truly complete without the delicate presence of at least one Boston fern.
But mostly, we will keep attempting to tame the fractious fern because, despite our 21st century know-how, there is something magical about a plant that has survived since long before the dinosaurs.

And no doubt, with or without our help, ferns will be around for another 400 million years.



Jason said...

Ferns are lovely. We grow them outside, but have not had much success with them inside. Thanks for this informative post!

Lynn Hunt said...

You are welcome Jason! We have a variety of beautiful ferns growing outside in the mountains. I am still learning how to identify them, but the Christmas ferns are particularly lovely.

Sunil Patel said...

Hi Lynn, interesting article. I wouldn't have thought of having ferns as houseplants. I guess it's because I've never really seen them in domestic settings and so the thought never occurred. They seem to be rather fussy too and perhaps not ideally suited for a domestic life. We do have several ferns in the garden and I wish they were easy to propagate, but they're from the time before seeds.

Lynn Hunt said...

Sunil, so you might just want to get a small fern for your new home! Think of it as a housewarming gift from me!

Lynn Hunt said...

Thanks so much for stopping by Eddie!

Post a Comment