Fernishing the Gardens
As the Fern Glade turns 50, this serene garden space continues to celebrate and shed new light on a diverse plant group that invites a closer look
By Mindy Keyes Black
For as long as she can recall, Sarah Johnston has been fascinated by ferns. “I’ve always liked native ferns, particularly maidenhair and Christmas ferns. My kids used to say my car stopped automatically for ferns on the roadside and fabric stores, neither of which they were interested in,” she says with a laugh.
In 1999, before retiring as a nurse educator, Sarah was visiting the Gardens to photograph a maidenhair fern when a Birmingham Fern Society member taking part in a volunteer workday called out to make sure she wasn’t digging. (“It did look a little suspicious since I was on the ground,” says Sarah.) That chance encounter led to an invitation to display her photos at the society’s next show and sale. Eager to learn more about ferns, Sarah and her late husband, Ralph, joined the group and were soon maintaining the glade’s growing and holding beds.
“A lot of people say, ‘A fern is a fern is a fern—it’s green,’” says Sarah. “But if you look at them, there are shades of green, there are different shapes, the fronds take different forms. There’s a lot of variety, which adds texture to the garden.”
Ferns have at times throughout history been considered mystical, even magical. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I, a highway robber tries to reassure a fellow thief that they will not be caught: “We have the receipt of fern-seed; we walk invisible” (Act II, Scene I). During the Victorian era, their popularity in gardens, literature, and the decorative arts led to a new term: pteridomania, or fern fever.
Founded in 1970 as a beautification project of the Edgewood Garden Club, Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ Fern Glade brought area fern lovers together. In 1975, the Birmingham Fern Society was established to promote an interest in ferns and to maintain the glade. Membership soon topped 100, and by 1977 the society was helping further popularize ferns through its annual show and sale. “Botany experts from across the state were invited to judge the show each year, and accredited flower show judges judged the arrangements,” recalls charter member Ginny Lusk, who suggested hosting the show and sale in June, when ferns are at their peak. “The show was a success—it educated the public about ferns and raised money for the Fern Glade from the sale of ferns.”
Ginny and fellow volunteers from the society continued to raise and donate funds for the glade and dedicate hours to its improvement, growing ferns hardy to the area and often adding native ferns from their personal gardens. “It was a lot of work,” Ginny recalls. “We brought our own tools. I’ve worn out shovels and picks through the years. We cleared honeysuckle and privet out of the wooded area between the glade and the Kaul Wildflower Garden, which was quite an undertaking.” They also brought in fern authorities from across the country to speak and visit the glade. “It’s been so much fun all these years,” says Ginny. “The friendships, the people we’ve had from out of state. We brought in speakers from California, Michigan, New York. I always kept them at my house. My husband, Ed, and I loved having them here, and they were all very complimentary of the glade.”
In 1979, landscape architect Charles Greiner was engaged to develop a plan for the glade that led to the addition of a recirculating water system and pump made possible through the combined efforts of the City of Birmingham, the Birmingham Fern Society, and the Birmingham Botanical Society Auxiliary.
In 1989, noted fern scientist Dr. John Mickel, who coined the term “fernishing the garden,” told Ginny and fellow fern society members about the Hardy Fern Foundation, a new organization working to establish site gardens across the country to test fern hardiness by region. The society jumped at the chance to apply for the national designation. “We were one of the first gardens to enroll,” says Ginny.
The entrance to the cool, shaded Fern Glade beckons visitors to explore the Gardens’ collection of more
than 140 species of ferns, including native ferns and hardy ferns from all over the world that have been
introduced and tested here through the glade’s affiliation as a test site for the Hardy Fern Foundation.
Since that time, in addition to continuing to grow native ferns well suited to the region, the glade has tested the adaptability and ornamental garden value of more than 100 species of hardy ferns from around the world, says Dr. Dan Jones, a longtime society member, Fern Glade volunteer, and former Biology Chair at UAB. Despite Birmingham’s late freezes, which can kill new growth, and summer heat, a challenge for many fern species, about half of the test plants have adapted to the glade. Some, like the autumn fern, are now commercially available after proving they are hardy and easy to grow and propagate—a tangible result of the glade’s contribution to the program.
“Because these ferns are from all over, you don’t necessarily expect them to be successful growing here, but we have found quite a few that have been,” says Dan. “It’s always rewarding to find plants that perform beyond your expectations and do well in Birmingham. When you like plants, any new plant is an interesting plant.”
Sometimes overlooked in favor of their flowering counterparts in the plant kingdom, ferns add depth to floral arrangements and deer-resistant staples to gardens and landscapes. A number have also shown promise for their roles in the environment, he says. Mosquito ferns (Azolla sp.) absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide and have the potential to help cool their environment. The Chinese brake fern (Pteris vittata) has been found to remove arsenic from soil and water.
Like Ginny and Sarah, Dan remains captivated by their differences. “Ferns have the most unusual array of leaves of any plant grouping in the world,” he says. “They are the second largest group of vascular plants we have, and the variation and variety in their structure and form are simply outstanding. Some have leaves as large as a garage door, others so small it takes a microscope or a hand lens to see them.”
After five decades, despite reductions in gardening staff and the need for regular repairs to the glade’s aging irrigation system, the Fern Glade continues to introduce visitors to more than 140 cultivars and varieties because of the society’s tireless volunteer efforts and ongoing support. “When people say, ‘I bought this fern at [a big-box store], and it died,’” says Sarah, “it’s helpful to show them that Boston ferns will not tolerate here, but others will.” In addition, she says, the glade serves as a reminder that variety is important in garden design. “A botanical garden needs to show diversity not only in plants but from the formal to the informal.”
She, Dan, and Ginny hope that a new generation will carry on their efforts to protect this special garden space. “I think of it as ‘perpetuating’ the glade,” says Sarah. “For those who are able and willing, it includes coming physically to help maintain the glade, whether it’s planting or weeding. But it also includes the garden’s design, securing plants, the glade’s layout, the expertise for growing ferns. I see this as our goal for the future—to perpetuate the glade in all those ways.”
The sculpture “The Dreamer” by Louisiana metal artist Russell Whiting
was installed in 2011, a gift of Neal and Dudley Reynolds.
Become a Fern Glade volunteer!
The Birmingham Fern Society is looking for new members to help perpetuate the glade. Learn more by emailing Society Vice President Louise Billings at [email protected] and Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens Volunteer Coordinator Alice Thompson Moore at [email protected].