The Great Fern Tradition of the Barnes Arboretum

The Great Fern Tradition of the Barnes Arboretum

Upside down fern

The rage for fern collecting began in Victorian Britain. Ferns reproduce by sending spores into the air, and natural hybridization results in a lot of variation. Unique wild-collected ferns were propagated and distributed by specialist English nurseries well into the 20th century, but most of these varieties went extinct as nurseries were remade into victory gardens during World Wars I and II.

Mrs. Barnes began collecting ferns in 1923, and by the 1940s she was growing almost 100 varieties, including an extensive collection of English ferns from the Victorian era, the majority of which are still in the Arboretum’s two-acre fern garden. Fern expert John Scott, in the sixth and final year of restoring the collection, reports that “only between six and twelve of the ferns on Mrs. Barnes’s list have disappeared.”  

John Scott with class
Image: John Scott with Volunteers

A group of volunteers is working on the restoration alongside Barnes gardeners and Mr. Scott, grouping different species by geographic origin to flank the footpaths. Visitors first tour Asian, then European ferns, before arriving in North America, where native varieties lead back out to the lawn. When the restoration is complete, it will comprise 200 species and subspecies; no other public garden has this kind of collection.

planting ferns

The Education Department is excited to welcome Mr. Scott as a guest instructor this fall for a 2-day workshop Introduction to Ferns. Find out more about his garden, the Rockland Botanic Garden. Learn more about the Barnes School of Horticulture.

House Holly

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