The Plant Lovers Guide to Ferns

Fern-book“It is a good time to be a gardener and a good time to grow ferns,” says Richie Steffen in the introduction to The Plant Lover’s Guide to Ferns. I’m sure his co-author Sue Olsen would totally agree. Both have served as president of The Hardy Fern Foundation—Olsen was a founding member—and are confirmed pteridomaniacs, people crazy about ferns. I’m a bit fern-crazed myself. I can get as excited about a new fern book as a new fern. I could think of no better pair to pen this volume in the Timber Press series of Plant Lover’s Guides.

Olsen’s expertise on the subject goes without saying. Her 2007 Encyclopedia of Garden Ferns (Timber Press) is in my mind the Bible for fern lovers. She has done an excellent job of whittling down the 960 that appeared in that book to a mere 140 of the best for this volume. No small task I’m sure—and a gift to us gardeners who can get lost in the miasma of ferns available to us. Her descriptions and cultural information are the backbone of this monograph and make it well worth the purchase.

On receiving it I immediately paged through this richly illustrated guide—Olsen and Steffen supplied all the beautiful images—to see if any of my favorites made the cut. There was Arachniodes standishii (upside down fern), Athyrium otophorum (eared lady fern) and Dryopteris ×complexa ‘Stableri Crisped’ to name only a few. But there were also many ferns I didn’t know, or had overlooked. Deparia japonica (black lady fern), Dryopteris polylepis (scaly wood fern), and Woodsia polystichoides (holly fern woodsia) have all been added to my plant search list since opening these pages.

Steffen begins the book with a chapter about designing with ferns. Though he makes a gracious nod to the past, and particularly to the Victorian era’s famous pteridomania, he stresses the importance of ferns to the modern garden above all else. His knowledge of garden creation and plantsmanship—he is curator of the Elisabeth Cary Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle—brings to light the many aspects of ferns that make them perfect plants to be used in a wide variety of garden contexts. The photos in this section, as well as Steffen’s rhapsodic style of writing, bring home what powerhouses these flowerless plants can be.

The second chapter gives us a look into the botany of ferns and their place in the world of plants on this planet. After 375 million years it is hard to disregard their botanical importance. Steffen includes a good morphological section in this chapter to give the reader a better understanding of the diversity of fern growth habits; once again excellent photos illustrate this complex information, making it easy to understand.

The Plant Lover’s Guide to Ferns wraps up with a chapter on growing and propagating ferns. Though slight compared to the other parts of the book it is concise. Who knew ferns actually had diseases, or that it was so easy to start them from spores?

To my mind the only shortcoming of this book, written by fern lovers for confirmed, as well as neophyte fern enthusiasts, is the inclusion of ferns that I will never be able to grow in my garden: ferns for zones 8 and above, East Coast ferns that cannot fend off the leagues of slugs resident in my river valley home, and desert ferns that melt in our long rainy season. Every maniac needs a little hemming in. This slim volume offers the pteridomaniac just the right amount of inspiration and information to keep them on track.

Daniel Mount, garden designer and writer, Seattle, Washington