After 30 years of growing ferns, Larry Weed can rattle off botanical names and dispense fern care tips with ease. But ask him why he and so many others are obsessed with the plants, and he’s at a bit of a loss.
“I never have a good answer for that,” he says.
Weed and his wife Glenda, both long-standing members of the Louisiana Fern Society, are milling about a room full of ferns—staghorns, towering tree ferns, lush ground-hugging ferns, enormous hanging baskets—at the conservatory in the New Orleans Botanical Garden in City Park, where they volunteer a few hours each week. Glenda pauses from her task at hand, clipping the brown growth off a patch of maidenhair ferns, and ventures one explanation.
“There are just so many different varieties and species, so many different textures and sizes,” she says. “The variety is just endless.”
Stone Age Style
Indeed, with about 20,000 different species, the fern category comprises an astonishing amount of diversity. But there are other reasons why people become fascinated by them. There’s the unusual life cycle, for one. Unlike seed-producing plants, ferns reproduce through sporangia, small capsules that contain spores often found on the underside of fronds. Then there’s the odd structure of ferns, which usually consists of fronds sprouting from a rhizome, a “stem” that can be entirely underground or, in the case of the resurrection ferns that cling to the limbs of live oak trees here, meandering and vine-like.
But perhaps the most intriguing characteristic of ferns is the fact that they have been around for at least 400 million years. They were the dominant form of plant life until the Mesozoic Era, the age of dinosaurs, and it’s almost impossible to look at the furry rhizome and fanlike fronds of a tree fern in the conservatory’s Living Fossils exhibit without imagining some prehistoric reptile skulking about in its shade.
Ferns in Louisiana
Here in South Louisiana, ferns make both an excellent ground cover and attractive decorative plants. Maidenhair ferns and Japanese holly ferns provide bright green ground cover year round. Larger ferns that make good landscaping plants include fishtail ferns, which can withstand temperatures in the high twenties, and the “tongue” fern, so called for its long, leathery fronds.
Most people might not readily identify the horsetail plant as a fern. In fact, it’s one of the fern allies, plants that are closely related to ferns but generally have smaller fronds or none at all. Horsetails do well in New Orleans gardens and, like many ferns, can spread quickly if left to their own devices.
Less cold-tolerant ferns can spend most of the year indoors or outdoors, including the popular elkhorn ferns, bird’s nest ferns, squirrel’s foot ferns and various species of staghorn ferns, a subcategory that has its own devotees. The Weeds point out several different staghorn varieties hanging from posts in a shady arbor on the botanical garden’s north side. Staghorns don’t live in soil, but collect moisture inside woody “shield” fronds and get most of their nutrition from the air. Larry Weed points out the new growths, called “pups,” that sprout on the edges of most staghorn ferns can be plucked off and planted. There’s only one species of staghorn native to the Americas, which grows on trees in Bolivia and Peru, he says; the others come from Africa, Madagascar, Australia and tropical Asia.
Ferns for the Garden
Japanese holly ferns
These ferns are less cold tolerant.
Bird’s Nest ferns
Squirrel’s Foot ferns
Staghorn ferns (various species)
For more information, visit the American Fern Society Web site, http://amerfernsoc.org, or the Louisiana Fern Society, www.louisianafernsociety.org.
Caring for Ferns
Because they come in so many different forms and have adapted to such varied environments, there are no hard and fast rules about caring for ferns. “There are always exceptions,” says Weed, “but in general, ferns need shade and moisture, with plenty of filtered light.” One common misconception, he says, is that people tend to overwater ferns. “I say they don’t water them enough,” he says. If the ferns are potted, he adds, a good, general fertilizer is sufficient for feeding.
They can be pretty forgiving plants, able to bounce back after a traumatic incident. A few City Park ferns even pulled through after Hurricane Katrina flooded the conservatory and knocked out power for weeks. “Every tree fern died, but a lot of stuff that stayed out of the water made it,” says Weed. Under more typical circumstances, even a fern that appears finished may still have some life in it. “Tree ferns and maidenhairs,” he says, “if they wilt, the part that wilts is finished.” But the fern lives on. “Just cut it off and start over.”
Fern photographs taken at the New Orleans Botanical Garden.
CYPRESS MULCH: BUYER BEWARE
With spring planting season underway, local conservationists are trying to get a message out about mulch: That bag of cypress mulch may have been harvested from the same coastal Louisiana wetlands that are supposed to protect us from hurricane winds and storm surge.
Dan Favre, campaign director for the Gulf Restoration Network, says his group has been pressuring some of the big-box garden centers to stop selling cypress mulch, which he says is a product of extensive logging along the Louisiana coast. The stores, for their part, say their distributors assure them that the cypress chips come from renewable sources, a point that environmentalists hotly dispute.
Until an independent third-party certification system is in place, Favre and others are asking gardeners to choose one of several alternatives to cypress mulch, such as pine bark or pine straw. “Our cypress forests are the Gulf Coast’s most effective storm defenses, and to lose them to something as disposable as mulch is tragic,” he says.