Lush Life: Mastering the Art of Ferns
Explore the leafy world of ferns with our guide to growing them, including advice from South African ferns expert Chris Myburgh.
Chris Myburgh needed a break from suburban Pretoria. He was a student in radiology, working as a GP in Joburg, and had an urge to get out of the capital city. So he got into his car and drove down to Mpumalanga – where, in the middle of the mists of Sabie, he saw a plant that would change his life. ‘I just thought “Wow, I must have one”,’ he says.
After going to a local nursery and asking around, he discovered that the plant in question was an indigenous tree fern called Cyathea dregei. ‘I bought three and they all died,’ says the man who is now standing in what can only be described as an enclosed tropical fern paradise out on Lynnwood Road on the eastern side of Pretoria. After the tragic deaths of his baby tree ferns, he was inspired to do some research and, in the process, turned his curiosity into a passion. He joined the Fern Society of South Africa and found a friend and business partner in legendary local fern cultivator, the late Jimmy Punter.
Myburgh would buy ‘baby’ ferns from Punter’s farm in Polokwane, grow them and sell them on the side of the road out the back of his bakkie – ‘just for extra income and to keep myself busy,’ he says. Then he met his wife Carol (who doesn’t have any interest in plants) and they found the property that would initially become their wedding venue, and eventually Fernhaven Nursery, where they have lived for 25 years.
Some of the oldest organisms on earth, ferns can be traced back to the Carboniferous Age, about 350 million years ago. It was a time when our deserts were filled with water, where massive trees cast vast swathes of shade and the air was thick with high humidity: perfect conditions for fern growth. It is thanks to these fern forests that we have our fossil-fuel seams, as coal was formed from compressed, decomposed fern vegetation. Dinosaurs would arrive only much later on, during the Mesozoic Era.
A crozier of cibotium unfurls.
Ferns are a wondrously diverse species, with native plants found in almost every country in the world. But they are also primitive plants, reproducing not from seed, but from dust-like spores on the backs of their leaves. This means that they don’t need to be pollinated, so you are never going to see pretty flowers or fruits on your fern, but it’s the species’ luscious evergreen foliage that drives its charm. Which is not to say that you won’t find ferns with spots of colour: silver tree-ferns exist beyond the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team jersey and there are very few things as delightful as a pink-hued Indonesian maidenhair fern.
Plus, beyond the ground and tree-like varietals we ordinarily associate with the species, some of the more collectable show stoppers grow (literally) on trees. Epiphyte ferns are all the rage these days, particularly platycerium or staghorn ferns. Although sometimes difficult to grow, these are more than worth taking trouble over, especially because they are fast friends with the other families of the moment: orchids and air plants.
Staghorns are among Myburgh’s particular favourites and he has a vast variety growing and for sale around his property. The most staggering of these are the Platycerium elephantotis ferns – wide-leafed hanging beauties that hail from the Congo and are the ultimate collector’s prize.
But it’s always important to walk before you can run, and here are some tips to get you up to jogging speed on the fern front.
water, water everywhere
Yes, ferns love water – and a lot of it. And no, we haven’t forgotten that we’re dealing with water scarcity across the country. But it’s not impossible to make ferns work. Gone are the days where pretty much anyone had the space and the resources for a Victorian-era fern garden, but if you pour all your focus into one shady spot, you’ll be set. It’s surprising how many ferns you can pack into a fairly small area if you diversify and stagger with taller standards, wide fans, hanging baskets, shrub-like minis and groundcover mosses.
Trussing some staghorns into a tree’s branches is always a good idea, too. This choreography is not just to be dynamic, as watering from the top down means that the run-off helps the ferns below in two-for-the-price-of-one fashion. And fallen leaves become natural organic fertiliser, helping retain extra moisture.
Most importantly, if you’re not using grey water for your garden already, get on it, because your ferns will like the ‘secondhand’ water as much as your water restrictions do.
grandma knew best
In terms of growing ferns indoors, there’s a reason your grandmother kept her ferns in her bathroom. The moisture and mist from showering and bathing comes in handy to keep plants hydrated. And if it’s still not enough, just dunk them into a solution of Epsom salts, water and tea to counteract dehydration, and they’ll come back to life beautifully.
pick smart, not hard
Nothing is more disheartening than a maidenhair fern. Generally the go-to ‘starter’ variety, as they are readily available, they are also pernicious weaklings that shrivel up and admit defeat at the first sign of stress. Maidenhairs are absolutely beautiful, but they will break your heart if you don’t know what you’re doing. Bird’s nest ferns are a very good place to start, thanks to their hardy, wide leaves, which come in various shapes and sizes.
The ever-faithful Boston fern is another good species for beginners. And when it comes to tree ferns, you can’t go wrong with a Dicksonia antarctica, but if you want something a little less old-fashioned, go for a monkey-paw fern. If you look past the fact that they can resemble a fuzzy spider’s legs with leaves, this variety creates quite a statement in a hanging basket. Keep any of these alive for two months and you’ll definitely be on your way to, well, branching out.