When I was a boy, some houses had cellars. Outside the house a grating covered a chute down into the cellar and the coal delivery man dumped his sack of coal down the chute.
Our cellar contained lots of stuff apart from coal. Mostly it was tinned and preserved food and water which my father had stored up pre-WWII in case of shortages. There was also a tunnel leading to a steel lined room where we sat out air raids.
Some of our coal was in very large lumps and had to be broken with a hammer kept for the purpose. One day I hammered a piece of coal and it split along a cleavage line and there revealed was a fossilised fern, a perfect specimen, glinting gold and brown when the light reflected from it. I kept it for a long time and I looked for others and found some partial fossils but none as large or complete as that frond.
Since then I have always had an interest in ferns. Maybe it was re-enforced when the girl-next-door and I hid beneath bracken in a wood. The smell of bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) still has an aphrodisiac effect.
I have been impressed by the large tree ferns seen in some botanical gardens and wondered whether I could get one. For my birthday a large black plastic bag arrived with a dead log in it. The card claimed it was an Antarctic Tree fern (Dicksonia Antarctica) and described how it should be looked after.
I planted it, the right way up I am sure, watered it, bought expensive special fertiliser for it and made sure it was wrapped up during the winter frosts. It remained as it arrived, a dead log. A colony of earwigs took up residence in it.
We complained to the vendor and after a few more complaints, received another dead log. But this one had a tiny green fleck on the top of it. I gave it the same tender loving care but nothing happened. Then, while I was not looking a fiddlehead or crozier appeared. This unfurled quickly over the next week and produced a beautiful frond. So taken was I with the frond that I did not notice a first, five other fiddleheads beginning to unfurl looking like the botanical equivalent of meerkats standing on their hind-legs.
Before the end of the summer I had a tree fern to be proud of with 6 fronds. Then, sadly, I had to wrap it up before the autumn frosts arrived. It stood in the dark winter garden wound in fleece like a ghostly white figure. This week I unwrapped it and it seems to have survived. There is already a new crozier growing up from the bottom.
Ferns are Pteridophytes, plants without flowers and seeds but with a vascular system to transport water and nutrients between roots and leaves. They are one up on mosses which have no vascular structure. Ferns and mosses were thought suitable for young Victorian ladies to study because their reproduction was thought not involve sex and there were no sex organs on display.
Ferns reproduce by alternate generations. The fern produces a spore which becomes a tiny sporophyte. This produces haploid gametophytes which release both egg and sperm to unite to form a diploid fern.
Apart from their aesthetic appeal, ferns are pretty useless in economic terms. Dryopteris filis-mas, the male fern is good for tapeworm. Well, actually, I mean it is bad for tapeworms, it kills them. Bracken is said to be carcinogenic and cattle will not eat it unless there is nothing else. To look up at the sky from beneath a tree fern is a dizzying experience, the frond mosaic assumes concentric circular patterns.
Most ferns are evergreen so they look OK in the winter months although they do not grow at low temperatures. My corner of the garden devoted to ferns looks reasonable. I thought there would be more ferns around Chandler’s Ford Lakes but there are few. They need shade and moisture and warmth so it shoudl be a good spot for them. There are some ferns at Hilliers, in particular there are some Ostrich Ferns, (Matteuccia struthiopteris) in the Himalayan Valley. These die down in the autumn and about this time of the year their fiddleheads appear.
Another unexpected delight in the garden last summer was a flowering yucca (Yucca filamentosa). We had one for about 15 years, it got bigger and bigger taking up more and more space but it never flowered. Last spring I pulled it up. Meanwhile a small one in a pot seemed to be doing well so we gave it a spot in the front garden for the architectural value of its sword shaped leaves. It produced a large spike of white flowers for us which lasted well into the autumn.
Who would have thought that I would get so excited by a single leaf or frond. I really must get out more.