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( Originally Published 1907 )
THE pernicious atmosphere of some of our modern homes, induced by dry furnace heat and gas, is not conducive to luxuriant growth, or even to the existence of ferns in general.
Fortunately atmospheric effects of this sort are practically if not wholly overcome by the moisture engendered by the confinement of plant life under glass. It is interesting to note the evolution of an idea originating from the accidental discovery of a tiny fern growing spontaneously in a wide-mouthed bottle containing leaf mould to the ideal fern case which offers the necessary conditions for the successful growth of ferns under glass in an otherwise unfavourable location. An atmosphere free from soot and injurious gases is thus obtained, and an even degree of humidity is insured. With light, heat and change of air, ferns of the right sort flourish much better under glass than they do without cover.
The evolution from the bottle to the Wardian case includes the bell glass, which is the resort of the majority who would grow ferns under adverse conditions or with the least trouble. These, if properly filled and rightly managed, are very satisfactory.
Such glasses are obtained with comparative ease, as they are often found among taxidermists' supplies, but it is sometimes difficult to obtain a satisfactory base, as the use of the bell glass for a fern case is not usual and the conventional fern dish is not made with reference to glass covering of any sort. There is nothing in the market which answers exactly.
The old-fashioned soup plate is the only utensil which has come within my reach that affords room for drainage and admits of an air space between the glass and filling.
The older the plate the broader the rim, hence a centenarian soup plate may have other than aesthetic value. Such improvised fern houses may range from seven to ten inches in diameter. The fundamental structure or ground plan must of necessity be somewhat regular, and should be composed of broken crocks or other porous matter, waste moss, soil and bits of rock as needed, held firmly in place by hairpins, great and small, and carpeted with mosses carefully "tacked" down. Careful selection of species is imperative, for filmy deciduous ferns easily "damp off" under glass, hence are of little use. Only hardy or half-hardy species can be counted on for lasting effects.
It is really astonishing to see the way certain ferns luxuriate under the bell glass; the walking leaf (Camptosorus) often becomes prolific at every tip, vainly reaching about for a rocky crevice in which to anchor its rootlets, but contenting itself by growing a perfect plant in mid-air.
Growth thus confined often takes on a form differing a little from that of open-air plants. Erect species become undulating or wavy, taking on grace as the strength of the plant lessens. Although ferns will live on year in and year out under glass, they will surely die if permanently removed, as they have not stamina enough to withstand the drier air after living any length of time in confined humidity.
The care of bell-glass ferneries is much less than is required for open culture. Showering with a small rubber plant sprinkler once a week, or every ten days perhaps, is usually sufficient. The air should be changed daily by leaving off the glass for a few minutes, that is, if the glass fits closely over the base.
They are not often perfectly true on the edges. Air enough may thus steal in to prevent decay, but not enough to damage the growth within, even if from a questionable atmosphere. If perchance a glass should happen to fit too well it may be raised a trifle by inserting a match or a toothpick in the moss. No better environment for forcing the development of leaf buds or apple blossoms could be found, and the experiment is worth while, for heralds of the coming spring are always pleasant.
The Wardian case may be called the memorial to Mr. Ward's discovery of the principles upon which successful fern culture depends when under adverse circumstances. This very excellent idea, however, was not carried to perfection; for insufficient ventilation, lack of proper drainage and construction, which render filling difficult, may be counted among the defects of the original model. Efforts to obviate the defects have been made with varying success.
The dimensions must be regulated to fit the space which the case is to fill. Extreme measurements taken from the base of the lower moulding of the model before us are 25 x 20 x 17 inches; the two long panels, 24 x 16 inches, with ends 16 x 16 inches.
The picture-frame order of architecture is here enforced, therefore the corner posts are not posts at all. The four frames are mitred together, half-inch splines being used on the corners only. A groove 1/2 x 1/2 inch is rabbeted out for the accommodation of the adjustable panels, which are the leading feature of the fern case. Anyone who has attempted a fernery where the entire case must be lifted off for filling or fixing will appreciate the convenience of panels which are easily removed. The glass is of heavy quality, each piece neatly framed, with half-inch stuff grooved an eighth of an inch to receive it. No putty is used in any part of the work. In case of breakage a couple of screws on one side of the frame can be taken out and new glass slipped in.
Brads secure the panels at the bottom, and pins made of bicycle spokes serve for the top; these slip through a slot into corresponding holes in the frames, and the fern case is intact. Ordinarily the upper moulding would hold the top in place, but for greater security against the unexpected, small nickel plates at each end of the pan are screwed to the base of the end panels. By removing these screws the entire top can easily be lifted off.
The zinc-lined pan is provided with a faucet for drawing off superfluous water, thus preventing the disastrous water-logged condition from which ferns often suffer at the hands of the inexperienced.
Holes bored in the upper sides of the end panels usually answer for ventilators, but if these are insufficient to admit fresh air the covers can be raised at will, as it is furnished with small brass hinges.
Nearly all of the woodwork is of curly maple, beautiful in itself but a trifle obstreperous under the plane; therefore other hard woods are preferable. Here the physical needs of the ferns call for the same preparation as elsewhere for drainage-porous matter, sphagnum, leaf mould-after which come the ferns, wild flowers, lichens and mosses.
Rocks may be introduced, filled or otherwise; glades spanned by moss-grown logs are easily simulated. Copy Nature in detail as fancy dictates and the woods are within your door. Native ferns and exotics of heavy texture only grace our fern case. A fine specimen of the dwarf sword fern (Nephrolepis cordata, var. compacta) figures on the left.
On the right a hart's tongue (Phyllitis) is flanked by the bulbiferous bladder fern (Filix bulbi fera), a variegated brake (Pteris) stretching its long fingers through the central hollow, giving the needed contrast in foliage. Deciduous ferns like the bladder and beech ferns (Filix and Phegopteris) have no staying qualities, as they easily damp off, but all the same they are worth growing, if only for a limited season.
The possessor of a roomy fern case with movable panels will find much pleasure by introducing flowering plants of the months as they come and go. The wild ginger opens the season always in my wild garden out of doors and in. Jack-in-the-pulpit appears in March. Arbutus buds and pussy-willows develop in April, followed by the airy foam flower (Tiarella cordi folia), and violets white and blue will answer for May. June delights us with a charming touch of pink in the twin flower (Linncea borealis). July gives us the fragrant shin leaf (Pyrola) and August an orchid or two. September seemingly twists the lady's-tresses especially for the fern case. This flower is much more effective with ferns in deep moss than growing by the roadside. If more pronounced decorations for special occasions are desired, cut flowers may be used.
In October the winter filling of the fern case should be done; red berries take the place of flowers. The wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) is a most valuable accesssory of winter ferns and may be lavishly used in the fern case.
An inch or two of root growth will insure life and growth under glass. Select longstemmed plants bearing clusters of but slightly coloured fruit. It is extremely interesting to watch their rapid growth and deepening colour; their keeping qualities are marvellous. It is no uncommon thing for specimen plants to mature and then hold their fruit in perfect condition for twelve or fourteen months. The size of the glassgrown fruit far exceeds that of outdoor growth. Second only to the wintergreen is the partridge berry (Mitchella repens). The foliage is attractive in itself, but doubly so if tipped with scarlet. Either plant gives the desired dash of colour, but as the two shades of red are inharmonious they should not be placed near each other.
Occasional showering, airing, frequent opening of the faucet that stagnant water may not eventually sour the soil, with a semiannual house cleaning, is small labour for the returns given.
PESTS OF THE FERN CASE
There is no phase of organic life exempt from the depredations of an enemy of one sort or another. Ferns in glass houses assuredly cannot "throw stones." Sooner or later a destroyer starts in.
The green aphis and common scale (Lecanium) must be subjected to tobacco fumes, hand picking and whale-oil soap. These are the common pests of home-grown ferns whether under glass or not. Others seemingly indigenous are no doubt imported. Only constant vigilance and wary devices can outwit the snail. Another reprobate equally destructive is the so-called "thousandlegged worm." The lightning-like rapidity of this nuisance makes a chase useless. Watch for him with a pair of open scissors and snip near the head.
One of the most expensive and elaborate artificial fern grottoes in the United States is at Philadelphia, Pa. In this wonderful dell the owner has succeeded in getting together over five hundred species and varieties of ferns. This collection is especially interesting to fern students because of the grouping of genera with correct labelling.
The shape of this grotto is octagonal, measuring 31 x 44 feet. Rugged and weatherworn stones only were used in its construction. The inside work is the product of Japanese workmen, although an increase of height and other alterations have since been made. The story of its making and management belongs properly to the domain of exotic fern culture, and is beyond the scope of this volume.