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( Originally Published 1907 )
ALTHOUGH the majority of the fern strangers within our gates flourish well in glass houses, comparatively few adapt themselves to open living-room culture. Of the accommodating minority we must look to the; sword fern family for the champion, which defies adverse conditions and easily takes the lead as the largest and most decorative house plant to be found in parlour, hall or living room the world over.
The type, Nephrolepis exaltata, has given place to its more graceful variety, the so-called Boston fern (N. exaltata, var. Bostoniensis), which is much better known and more widely appreciated than the choicest wildling which our native fern flora can offer. Equally fine specimens are seen in cool offices, store windows or over-heated living rooms. Few ferns submit to such a wide range of temperature; anything, in short, above the freezing point will do. The genus seems also indifferent as to receptacles in which to live, thriving as well in an undrained bean pot as in a common flower pot hidden or not by a costly jardiniere. True, however, to the inherent nature of the race, this particular fern prefers a light soil. It likes plenty of water, yet it can go dry for a long period with but little damage.
Growth may be stimulated in various ways, preferably by liquids. It is my own experience that cold coffee is especially beneficial to ferns in general. Fabulous tales are told of the "boom" in growth resulting from burying oysters in the pot, but bonemeal is certainly more wholesome. Phosphates are also suitable, and are said to be disastrous to the white worms which somehow manage to infest soil supposed to be sterilized.
The old aphorism, "Every dog has his day," is applicable to the plant world. A new star arose, and for a time it seemed that the old-time favourite must give place to the plumose variety, Piersoni, and now there comes the still more plumed Tarrytown variety. Yet the old Boston fern still holds its ground. The complex cutting of the fronds in these newer varieties permits of variation in colour so that light-green tints are always against the older, darker growth. It is difficult to tell which is the more pleasing, the mossy effect of the young fronds or the more magnificent plumes of the mature plant which both stand and droop gracefully. Again, the Scott fern (N. exaltata, var.Scottii of the florist) compels attention because of' its compact sturdy habit-it is a condensed Boston fern.
The dwarf kidney or sword fern (Nephrolepis cordata, var. compacta) is a pretty little fern, more delicate than the other members of the genus, surpassing the Boston fern in richness of colour and taking up so much less room that it can be grown in cramped quarters when the other would be too aggressive. The greenhouse maidenhair (Adiantum cuneatum), the best known of the true maidenhair ferns, is another familiar plant in many homes, popular even before the recognition of the sword fern. This dainty, feathery thing is the ideal centrepiece for any sort of table. And if it demands more careful culture than the sword ferns it surely is not difficult to grow, for plants live on for twenty and even thirty years. The veteran plants I have in mind are occasionally put into the ground for the summer, in shade of course, and allowed to take care of themselves for a time, a privilege not abused, as they both rest and grow. Cutting back now and then is also beneficial. Plenty of water is im perative. Unlike the Boston fern, the fronds wither quickly if the soil once becomes dry. Other members of the genus submit with more or less grace to ordinary living-room culture, but A. cuneatum, the stand-by of the florist, takes the lead, as it is the most easily cultivated and the fronds last longer when cut; hence its superior decorative value. A soil composed largely of sterilised leaf mould is preferred.
The artistic value of the brake (Pteris) tribe is rapidly gaining recognition. As a class they are excellent foils for the maidenhairs (Adiantums) and for all other ferns with finely cut fronds. No professional thinks of filling a fern dish without commingling the two. There is considerable beauty as well as individuality in the genus. The Cretan brakes (Pteris Cretica and its variety albo-lineata) are perhaps most often seen outside the greenhouse. The fronds are unique in design, and in colour, too, in the white-lined variety. They are all especially strong in texture, hence their indifference to varying temperatures and other conditions disastrous to more delicately constituted genera.
Another sub-tropical pteris, known in the trade as P. adiantoides, is a larger-growing sort, sending out long, gracefully drooping fronds which bear no resemblance whatever to the former species. It is only moderately successful as a house plant, but bears heat well and requires little water.
One of the most desirable oŁ all ferns for house culture is the holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum). As a specimen plant it is very striking. The rich, glossy fronds, dark above and light beneath, are especially effective if allowed to droop over birch-bark or other light covering. It is a pity that the species is not better known, as it is easy of culture, preferring a soil composed largely of leaf mould, and asks only for a moderate amount of water, an occasional rest, and perhaps a little lower temperature than the Boston fern approves for an every-day life. Few of the many tropical and sub-tropical spleenworts (aspleniums) take kindly to house culture. Belanger's (A. Belangeri) is an easy growing species, and the obtuse spleenwort (A. obtusilobum) is especially suited for basket culture.
A charming plant for the window garden is the pretty climbing fern (Lygodium Faponi-cum). Whether allowed to cover a trellis or twist its stem about a cord or wire, it grows rapidly if it grows at all. But if the growing end is broken all progress is suspended; the main stem may have lateral branches, but Nature never attempts to remedy a terminal disaster. Aside from the unusual climbing habit, it is an attractive fern, light in colour, beautifully cut, especially those fronds which are tipped with fertile segments.
The advantage of tropical or sub-tropical ferns over equally beautiful native species for living-room culture lies in the fact that they require no long period of absolute rest, consequently the renewal of foliage is imperceptible; whereas many native ferns are distinctly deciduous, and even our hardy or half-hardy sorts drop down to rest even while retaining their freshness of colour. As already stated, certain species are benefited by enforced rest, but it is not of vital importance.
THE SOIL TO PROVIDE
As a general rule light soil is preferred by most ferns. Leaf mould, black and beautiful, suits species which require much water. Others which prefer to go dry shod thrive best if sand or disintegrated limestone is mixed with upland mould.
Clean foliage is imperative. If frequent showering is not convenient, as it rarely is with plants of much size, the most delicate are never injured by a feather duster, for ferns, like people, must breathe.
Fern pests, alas! are many, not in kind but quantity. Even the Boston fern (Nephrolepis) may be covered with the insidious scale before we dream that aught can ail it. No easy method is known of getting rid of this nonshakable encumbrance. Hand picking is neither pleasant nor very effective. Scraping or rubbing off with a stiff brush dipped in whale-oil suds or a kerosene emulsion is much better. Adiantums are especially subject to this pest and should be watched closely, and affected fronds removed in an early stage. If a glistening, sticky substance is seen, beware, for it is but the prelude of danger ahead.
The green aphis is another common pest especially in love with a certain graceful pteris. But it usually succumbs to confined tobacco fumes.
Red spider now and then dots the pale green side of the holly fern (Cyrtomium), but it is not difficult to exterminate, as the red mites abhor water.
The tiny white worms and black flies in the soil, which seem to be forever swapping identities, are more difficult to exterminate. A little ammonia or lime in the water has a wholesome effect, and common phosphate sprinkled on top of the soil before watering seems to make them gloriously ill. Much of this trouble may be avoided if the soil is thoroughly sterilised.
There has been a great increase in the popularity of exotic ferns in recent years. A glance at shady nooks or secluded corners in public and private parks shows that native genera have by no means a monopoly of outof-door culture, but that many imported species hitherto supposed to serve only for interior decoration figure largely and effectively in the open border in conjunction with other foliage plants, if shaded from the direct rays of the sun and well supplied with water.
This innovation puts the fern bed or border within the reach of many who have access to greenhouses, but not to native ferns in their haunts.
Of the foreign element in the open border, the dwarf Brazilian tree fern (Blechnum Brasiliense) may be counted on for striking effect, as it is an unusually strong grower. The slender hare's-foot fern (Stenoloma tenui folia, var. stricta, or Davallia stricta of the nurseries) is also one of the best ferns in cultivation. When especially bold lines are needed there is nothing better than the golden polypody (Phlebodium aureum, Polypodium aureum of the florists), because of its large foliage and glaucous bluish colour. Very popular, too, is the silver pteris (Pteris quadriaurita var. argyrea), noted for its large foliage, distinguished by a broad band of white through the centre of each frond.
Given a few such headlights, the filling in between of less pretentious ferns is simple indeed, and sufficiently artistic without any mixing with other foliage plants.