This story first appeared in Garden Design.
The fern is a modest sort. It creeps below the forest floor, surfacing now and then to unfurl its foliage. It eschews heavy perfume and bright flower, opting instead for basic green. Indeed, I always thought of the fern as ordinary. It wasn’t until I crouched down to study the fern’s fretwork foliage, its ancient history, and its odd habits that I came to see it as anything but.
The fern maintains its own lingo. While other plants make do with stem, leaf, and shoot, the fern prefers rhizome, frond, and crosier. No unseemly pollination for the dignified fern. It procreates via “alternation of generations,” sending its dustlike spore wafting on air; upon landing, the spore grows into a tiny plant called a prothallus, which produces the familiar fern. “It would be as if our eggs and sperm produced little beings, ten inches tall, and they had sex and we didn’t,” says Warren Hauk, associate professor of biology at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and past president of the American Fern Society.
The fern has clung to Earth for 350 million years. Today Pteridophyta, the fern phylum, comprises some 12,000 species and thrives in landscapes from the equator to the northern boreal forests. The mosquito fern, a mere speck, grows dense across lakes. The frilly wood fern pads the forest floor. The climbing fern rappels brick walls. The moonwort unfurls a single scalloped leaf each year, dotting sand dunes and mountainsides. In spring, the Himalayan maidenhair fern glistens salmon pink. In autumn, the royal fern glows golden orange.
After disaster strikes—lava flow, say, or forest fire—the fern is often the first to take root. In 2006 the Washington Post reported on a colony of maidenhair ferns thriving in a D.C. Metro station, some 150 feet underground. “They’re survivors,” says Michelle Bundy, curator of the Hardy Fern Foundation in Federal Way, Washington. “They’re tough.”
As well as tender. In the storybook, the fern hosts fairies. In medicine, it eases aches. In the decorative arts, it’s shorthand for tasteful. That’s why the Victorians developed a mass case of “pteridomania,” fern fever. The image of the fern was pressed into pottery, stitched onto pillows, and cast into ironwork. The fashionable Victorian sitting room was graced by a Wardian case—an early terrarium—overflowing with ferns. A formal fern conservatory, called a fernery, was thought an appropriate addition to Victorian parks, concert halls, and mental hospitals. “It showed you had good taste because you saw the appeal of foliage plants rather than gaudy, garish flowers,” says Sarah Whittingham, author of The Victorian Fern Craze (Shire, 2009). (For more on the Victorians’ passion for ferns “The New Victorians”)
“The Victorian fern craze never stopped,” saysSerge Zimberoff, owner of Santa Rosa Tropicals, a nursery in Santa Rosa, California. In high season the company ships 100,000 “clone grown” ferns from laboratory to nursery each week. “Look on TV,” Zimberoff says. “Whenever a person is speaking, there’s always a big Boston fern nearby.”
By the 1960s, the potted fern had moved into the dorm room and living room, where it was tended by a guy with a copper misting can and a girl, likely as not, named Fern. It got suave in the 1970s, when no singles-bar pickup line could be smoothly delivered without a fern overhead.
Today gardeners appreciate the low-maintenance, high-style fern more than ever, and landscapers are keen on the indelicately named stumpery, where ferns frolic among logs. Prince Charles keeps a stumpery. “Ferns have a really neat perspective on life,” says Tom Goforth, owner of Crow Dog Native Ferns and Gardens in Pickens, South Carolina. “They developed this lifestyle a way long time ago. Ferns, I think, just decided, ‘Man, we’ve got this all worked out. Why change?’?”
SIDEBAR: THE FERN BAR IS BORN
The Boston fern – all frill and droop -- worked the tropics before launching its second career as the mascot of the fern bar.
According to fern-bar historian Martin Cate, the corner tavern once specialized in the dank, disreputable look, a hangover from Prohibition. That changed, Cate explains, when 25-year-old Norman Hobday opened a bar called Henry Africa’s at the corner of Polk and Broadway in San Francisco.
“We were trying to gussy it up with very little money,” remembers Hobday, who had previously served as a merchant marine, motorcycle delivery driver and used-furniture salesman. He dragged in remnants of his sales career: the popular “gay-90s” revival Victorian sofas, parlor tables and faux Tiffany lamps. “I just wanted to make it comfortable, homey, warm, inviting,” he says. He added ecology-chic fern baskets, dirt cheap at $3 each. He hung some in the windows and -- in a moment of inspiration – some over the bar. The fern bar was born.
“I had the first one, I guess,” says Hobday. Some authorities confer that honor on a nearby place called Perry’s, which opened a few months earlier.
The bright-and-comfy approach appealed to single women, who in turn drew single men, practically inventing the pick-up scene. Influential work for a plant that can, in a pinch, reproduce asexually.
Hobday closed Henry Africa’s in 1986. The next year he opened the similar, if fancier, Captain Eddie Rikenbacker’s, where he still works. Today the fern bar aesthetic, if not the actual fern, lives on in TGI Fridays, Bennigans and Houlihans.
The original isn’t coming back, insists Cate. But interest is. Last summer at the spirits industry convention Tales of the Cocktail, in New Orleans, Cate drew crowds for his talk: “The smooth and creamy history of the fern bar.”
On the lecture circuit, he usually stops by Home Depot for potted fern props, which he later gives away. Admits Cate: “I’m no good at keeping them alive.” Then again, neither was Hobday, back in the day, when cigarette smoke killed them off every three weeks.