ENJOYING FERN BRITAIN
Introduced here 200 years ago, tree ferns are a great way to go sub-tropical in the UK
SOMETIMES it’s good to reappraise planting trends many years after their introduction. I was involved in the popularisation of Dicksonia antarctica, that amazing Tasmanian tree fern which sprung up on makeover shows, magazines and books about 20 years ago. And now I’m enjoying them in my very own garden. There’s nothing new about tree ferns – they’ve been grown on these islands for more than 200 years, having been first introduced from Australia in 1786 when they were collected by plant hunters and sent back to Kew. Their introduction to gardens may have been accidental, however. Their trunks were used as ballast for cargoes during long sea journeys in the 19th century. When the ships were unloaded at docks, some of these discarded trunks resprouted and so were taken away to be replanted in gardens. Magnificent examples can be found in Cornish gardens such as Heligan, Trengwainton and Trewidden. What was different in the early 2000s was their use in suburban gardens and their widespread availability in garden centres and elsewhere. There was an explosion of interest in these dramatic ferns and they became feature plants in back gardens across the UK. For about 10 years I travelled incessantly and moved house nearly as often. I was longing for the day when I could put down roots, so to
speak, and establish a permanent garden, and I couldn’t wait to plant these favourites of mine. On the first terrace of my sloping site I built a rectangular pool and surrounded it with around 10 tree ferns. I also built a first-floor verandah at the back of the house, which was a perfect viewing platform to look down on top of them. The recent tropical-like rains have created the perfect conditions. Where I live is not far from the coast so it’s generally warmish with only occasional snow. Tree ferns love airborne moisture and they’ve been dancing for joy as the heavens opened last week. With the right conditions they grow fairly fast and mine are now sprouting fronds that remind me of feathery ostrich plumes. They’re lush, green and appear to be very happy. What was just a few years ago a relatively bare terrace now looks like a glorious sub-tropical jungle. I’ve underplanted them with the wonderful shade-loving biennial Geranium palmatum and that results in clouds of pink froth weaving its way around the base of the dark hairy stems. As a combination, it’s a real delight and even on the dullest days the drama of this plantation lifts my heart.
Project: Diarmuid has 10 large ferns around his pool
Two Dicksonia antarctica tree ferns
Exotic: Ferns arrived from Australia in 1786