“Ferns are Ferntastic”


Fern2by Susan
That’s just one of the messages that adorn the T-shirts of American Fern Society members, who presumably can then ID each other and talk ferns all day. This and other tidbits from the world of fern-lovers was revealed by Oliver Sacks in a recent article in the New Yorker.  Turns out this best-selling neurologist-author (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) is a fernie himself and attended a recent Fern Foray in New York City where he and a dozen others were flattened against an embankment of the Park Avenue railroad trestle "peering with magnifying glasses and monoculars into tiny crevices in the stone."  Fern Forays have been going on for over 100 years but this particular day the group included a poet, 2 teachers, a mechanic, a neurologist (presumably Sacks), and a urologist – men and women aged 20 to 80. 

Founded in Victorian times with Darwin as their icon, the American Fern Society is "one of biggest international fern clubs in the world", with over 900 members worldwide. (There’s more than one?  Imagine the rivalries!) Members of the Torrey Botanical Society, founded in the 1860s, also participate in the forays, though their primary interest is the world of mosses, liverworts and lichens.  According to Sacks, "Ferns are a bit too modern, too evolutionarily advanced, for them, just as flowering plants are for the rest of us."  I guess they won’t be posting on Gardenblogger Bloom Day.

All this raises one question in my mind:  How on earth do people become fanatics about one particular plant group and if I may say so, especially one that’s so primative and unassuming?  What kind of people are turned on to, say, liverworts?  But just look at all the plant societies [pdf].  Orchids have their fans, gladiolas have theirs (maybe funeral directors) and Siberian iris,too.  Ditto penstemon, dianthus, fuchsia, gloxinia and cactus.  But why these and not others?

On the other hand, isn’t nice to see that not everyone is glued to their TVs, their iPods, their (name that device) but are outdoors observing and enjoying nature.  Go fernies!

Photo Credit


  1. What a terrific post, Susan! And what a great question. I wonder if anyone else is like me in this regard: First I was entralled by roses; then I discovered hostas and really became a “hostaholic” for several years. The next group to catch my fancy was the iris. Now I find myself working hard to get as many native plants as possible in my garden. It will be wonderful to hear all the comments on this. (But the roses, hostas, and iris are all still here too.)

  2. I’ve read Sacks’ _Oaxaca Journal_, which is a chronicle of a fern exploration trip he goes on. I thought he mentioned in it that he’s got a soft spot for mosses too, but maybe not–anyway, interesting book, and certainly depicted fernies as interesting people.

  3. I’m a generalist so folks who do one thing and one thing only have always baffled me. While organizing a garden club/plant society mixer event for the UC Botanical Garden, I contacted as many of these groups as I could. Some attended, some didn’t. A lot of times, the ones who didn’t didn’t attend because they WEREN’T interested in mixing. They have their niche. If they find new members, fine, but apparently they aren’t going looking for them. And they’re seemingly bored by talking to folks interested in any other sort of plant. Luckily, some more outgoing societies attended such as the Bay Area Carnivorous Plant Society. Stephen Davis, representing them, gave a talk about sarracenias. One of the things he highlighted during the talk is that carnivorous plants seem to really appeal to folks who have never before been interested in plants. He said there’s so much technical information to know that engineers in particular tend to become carnivorous plant fans.

    Photos of that talk and others are here:


    In the Bay Area here, we have not only the groups you mentioned but fans of Chrysanthemums, bromeliads, African violets, etc. It is curious how folks settle upon one genus or species.

  4. To totally immerse or dedicate ones time to the study of one particular species is a pedagogic delight.
    I’ve thrown myself into several independent genus discoveries over the many years and thoroughly appreciate and love the huge volumes of information that other eclectically absorbed and enamoured horticulturist have shared with me .
    It has made me a more informed person and in the long run a more well rounded horticulturist.
    As an an example; to intensely study the Proteacea family is to open up a journey that takes you to South Africa , Australia , Hawaii and beyond.
    As one begins to study the plant you inadvertently begin to study the native growing regions , the ethnology of the people who grow and use these particular plants and how these particular plants have made an impact on diverse cultures.

    So to think that by studying one particular plant family is isolationist or single minded has yet to discover the immense diversity , history and cultural impact that this one plant family has contributed to this earth.

  5. Has anyone read “Moss Gardening” by George Schenk? I recommend it because it is so out there. I have to admit that I have a weakness for ferns and fern allies too. There are ferns that look like grasses (Pilularia spp., like clover (Marsilea spp.), Oh, and when I was at a native plant nursery in Arizona they had a fern that’s fronds are shaped like stars, except highly compounded (Notholaena standleyi). Things don’t need flowers to be diverse and interesting.

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