A Little Help From My Fronds

Something would need to look decrepit to the point of hopelessness for me to pass up the opportunity to have a go at reusing or recycling it, if it’s there for the taking.

So there I was, earlier this summer, messing about in the green waste pile of a well known nursery, as you do, when I spotted them. To say they didn’t look promising would be putting it mildly. The three of them together, buried under an outcrop of discarded Hebe albicans. It was pure luck that I even caught a glimpse of a square inch of that unmistakable, prehistoric trunk as I fumbled and stumbled my way over the pile like a novice roller- blader. I was scavenging with the knowledge and blessing of the management and anything I discovered was fair game. Anything I thought that was worth saving from the shredder was mine to keep and these were definitely worth saving.


We all know ferns. The distinctive, shade loving, big leafed fern. We see them everywhere; on roadsides, the forest floor, on marshy and boggy land. The common or garden (lol) fern went through something of a purple patch about a decade ago when no designer worth his or her salt would dream of concocting a contemporary cool urban planting scheme without including at least a hundred of them. For those of us who spent a good portion of our youth wrestling with bags of turf on various raised bogs all over the midlands we wondered what all the fuss was about. The bog fern, Osmunda cinnamomea. We could see their undoubted appeal, even their beauty but to a large extent in this instance, familiarity bred apathy. Ferns; big deal.

And then one fine day years later when, I like to think, I had a deeper appreciation and understanding of the world in general, I saw it. The tree fern. Or Dicksonia antarctica to be precise. There it stood, more like a statue than a plant. Like a relic of some lost civilization. An artifact that has been excavated from the site of some ancient volcanic eruption. There can be no more evocative a plant. A tree fern conjures thoughts of lost subtropical worlds, undiscovered tribes and prehistoric societies. And simultaneously they bring us right into the here and now because, like their down at heel cousins a decade ago, they are the default pillar of any contemporary urban planting scheme.

Of course I single out Dicksonia antarctica but that is merely the species that is most familiar to us now in this part of the world. The sky, as is usually the case with taxonomy and classification, is the limit. In general, any fern that grows with a trunk elevating the fronds (leaves) above ground level can be called a tree fern. However, the plants formally known as tree ferns comprise a group of large ferns belonging to the families Dicksoniaceae and Cyatheacae in the order Cyatheales. Tree ferns are found growing in tropical and subtropical areas, as well as temperate rainforests in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and other island groups nearby; a few genera extend further, such as Culcita in southern Europe. Like all ferns, tree ferns reproduce by means of spores developed in sporangia on the undersides of the fronds.

So anyhow there I was on top of the green mountain in north Dublin on a beautiful June day contemplating how I would get my botanical booty back down to base camp and into my trailer.

Manage it I did, just about. But just like Leonardo di Caprio’s character in The Revenant, the recovery was slow. It ‘s only now almost five months and a tanker load of feed, water and TLC later that they are recovering a bit of frondliness and are ready to be planted out. This is what the best of them looks like through my living room window. Worth saving? Oh yes.

For some serious tree fern action check out kellsgardens.ie. An epic collection in that fabled subtropical locale, Cahersiveen.

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