Tree ferns capture the imagination in a way no other plant does. They are jurassic, tropical and strikingly beautiful. With their hairy, gnarled trunks and elegant feathery fronds, they add a wild, primal feel to any landscape, transporting us to prehistoric times.
They can definitely be enjoyed in a British garden, but some care needs to be taken. Throughout the winter it is best to wrap the trunks in fleece or bubble wrap to protect them, and ensure the plant is never allowed to dry out. They do not like exposed spots, and prolonged periods of bright sunlight is not ideal.
I’m currently carrying out an internship at Logan Botanical Garden, and so have had the chance to see a truly unusual mixture of tree ferns, all possible due to the mild micro climate that the area enjoys.
Cyathea dealbata (below) is one example, a stunning, silvery, feathery thing, the national symbol of New Zealand and a deeply significant plant in their culture and politics. The top is the usual rich, mid-green, but when flipped over, the pure moonlit, colouring of the underside reveals itself.
One of the most fascinating thing about tree ferns is the fact that their trunks are not actually trunks in the sense of most perennial plants, in that they are not stems that undergo secondary thickening. They are a slim central stem, surrounded by the dead mass of old plant growth, through which adventitious roots grow. So the roots are all entangled up the length of the trunk, instead of buried underground.
Tree ferns generally belong to either the Dicksoniaceae and Cyatheaceae families. The Dicksonia’s tend to have a hairier looking trunk, which is the mass of roots growing around the base of old fronds. The Cyathea’s have a rougher, spikier trunk, as the old broken fronds are not softened down. Cyathea’s are also considered to be a little more cold hardy than Dicksonia’s.
The photo above is of the unusual Cyathea medullaris, commonly known as the ‘Black tree fern’ due to it’s stunning coal black stems, which contrast so strikingly with its rich, emerald foliage.
Above is a photo of the Cyathea’s strange and beautiful fiddlehead, tentatively preparing to unfurl, a peculiarly speckled alien claw.
Like buds, fiddleheads are a gratifying and uplifting sight, the sign of new life preparing to open out into something incredible.
Tree ferns can be both richly lush and reminiscent of dark, damp, steaming rainforests, or when viewed alone and simply admired for their quirky shape, can add a whimsical, slightly outlandish element to the garden.
They are a plant that makes us think of the ancient, of a time when no humans marred the planet, but only dinosaurs stalked its surface.