Popular Victorian Plants
Ferns are ancient plants. Their ancestors and related species dominated the earth when the great coal deposits of the carboniferous age were laid down around 300 million years ago. You might say that today's coal is largely made from the compressed remains of ancient ferns.
Today, according to The Fern Grower's Manual there are some 12,000 named species around the world with new types being regularly discovered. They range in size from the tiny to tree-like structures. Ferns propagate from spores rather than seeds, although this was not understood until 1794 when John Lindsay, a British surgeon in Jamaica, grew ferns from 'dust' collected from adult plants. In A Natural History of Ferns Moran describes how this was done and notes that Lindsay's discovery led to a massive increase in the growing of ferns:
(p. 18) "Thanks to Lindsay's information, gardeners in England learned to propagate ferns from spores, and they passed this knowledge to colleagues in other countries. Ferns began to enrich green houses, gardens, and parks around the world. Furthermore, the horticulturists at Kew began raising ferns sent from far corners of the British Empire. They amassed the world's largest and richest collection of living ferns - a distinction held to this day ..."
Ferns were hugely popular in Victorian times. This is how their care and propagation were described in the 'Dictionary of Daily Wants' (1859):
FERNS.A species of plant partaking of the character of heaths. Hardy ferns, if producing side-shoots, may be increased by division. If they are planted out in a bed or on rock-work, they should be taken up and divided into pieces, with a portion of earth to each. They may be replanted ; but a better method is to pot them, and place them in a cold frame kept close and shaded till they make fresh roots and fronds.
Scarce kinds may be increased by seed. If some small sandstones be placed in a damp shady situation, and the fern seed be scattered upon them, and then be covered with a hand glass, the seeds will germinate, and the stones will be covered with ferns. For the rarer kinds a little extra care will be necessary. Sow them on rough pieces of dead turf, place them under a hand-glass, in a situation where they can have a close, warm, moist atmosphere; a cold frame, kept close in summer, will answer admirably.
Stone ferns, or any kind of fern that sends out creeping stems underground, rapidly increases by division. This requires considerable care. They should not be divided till the parts to be separated have a portion of roots to each. Turn the plants out of the pots, and with a sharp knife, divide the plants into as many parts as have roots and a small ball; pot them in pots only a little larger than the little ball; drain them well, give a gentle watering, and place them in a shady situation till they begin to grow again, and send up fresh fronds.
Ferns may also be propagated by seed. For this culture they require a constantly humid, warm atmosphere, and little, if any sunshine. Procure a wide earthen pan, a hand or bell-glass that will fit within it and rest on the bottom, and a shallow wide pot that will stand within the glass and above the rim of the pan two or three inches. Fill this pot half full of potsherds and upon them a sufficient number of small pieces of turfy peat mixed with small pieces of sandstone about the size of peas, to come up to the pot. Ther take the frond of any fern that is full of seed and with the hand, brush them off upon the prepared pot set in the pan; place the glass over the pot, and fill the pan nearly with water. Place the whole in the warmest part of the stove, shading it from the sun. The small pieces of turf and stone can be easily separated, and the seedlings on each put into small pots, without any danger of destroying them by the process of potting.
Greenhouse ferns may be cultivated by the same method, and with the same compost. The only difference is in the temperature. In summer they may be set out of doors with the rest of the greenhouse plants, and brought into it as soon as there is any danger of frost. The great advantage of growing ferns in a greenhouse is that they fill up many corners where nothing else will grow.
In the twenty-first century, ferns are commonly propagated by tissue culture. The Fern Grower's Manual (p.71) states:
"Tissue culture is the process of growing entire plants from bits of tissue by planting them in a growth medium of nutrients and hormones. Aseptic conditions must be maintained throughout the procedure, which involves transferring the tissue from one formulation to another at certain stages. Most Boston ferns and many other species are commercially propagated by tissue culture. The advantage of growing ferns by tissue culture is that large numbers of genetically uniform, disease-free plants can be produced in a small area. Ferns for which there is limited vegetative propagating material, or those that do not produce viable spores, are especially suited for tissue culture."
The Fern Grower's Manual also points out that some ferns propagated in this way are more attractive than those grown from spores, as they are fuller and more compact because of a greater branching of the rhizome.
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