The Fern Collection at the Pennsylvania Aboretum

By Lawrence Biemiller

Philadelphia -- The goldfish are all called "Bob" -- or, collectively, "the Bobs." Which seems unfair at first. But the truth is that the Bobs all look pretty much alike, and anyway they're ridiculously easy to please: Toss them some food once a day and they're content. Here the good names are reserved for the ferns, some 75 varieties -- Cretan Brake, East Indian Polypody, Hart's Tongue Fern, Kangaroo Fern, Mexican Tasseled Fern, Tasmanian Tree Fern. Many of the names are wonderfully descriptive: The Staghorn Fern has broad fronds that resemble exactly the horns of a stag. The fronds of the Lion's Paw Fern grow out of a tuft that looks for all the world like a big cat's paw. The Lasagna Fern -- a personal favorite -- has fronds with ruffled edges, as if it evolved specifically to divide ricotta from tomato sauce.

Unlike the Bobs, the ferns are varied, demanding, idiosyncratic. Some are the size of trees; some are no larger than a mouse. Some want full sun; some want partial shade; some want the dimness of the dripping grotto beyond the footbridge. Some need soil into which to send roots; some flourish in the interstices of a rock wall; others hang in midair, collecting moisture in reservoirs of their own devising. All must be near at least a thin film of water in order to reproduce, and all prefer a tropical level of humidity that takes wrinkles right out of your clothes and justifies the ferns' having a building of their own. A fernery, it's called, and as far as anyone at the University of Pennsylvania's Morris Arboretum knows, the 95-year-old structure here is the only freestanding fernery remaining in North America.

Closed to the public for years because its roof was deteriorating, the fernery has just reopened after a $1.2-million restoration and a renaming in honor of the major donor, Dorrance H. Hamilton. A new glass-and-stainless-steel roof recreates the shapely lines of the 1899 original, with a curving clerestory set in the center of a 53-by-34-foot octagon. The hot-water-heating mechanism has been completely rebuilt. The thousands of rocks that make up the charming and ingenious interior landscape have been remortared without disturbing the meandering footpath or the hundreds of miniature cliffs and terraces from which ferns sprout at every angle and every height. The plumbing that feeds the splashing waterfall has been repaired, and the wooden footbridge has been rebuilt to look as rustic as ever. Even the ceramic Buddha has been returned to his niche in the little tunnel that takes the path beneath the promontory, from the top of which the delighted visitor can overlook what seems to be a picture-perfect late-Victorian fantasy.

And the fernery here is very much a late-Victorian artifact. It was built by John T. Morris and his sister, Lydia, two gardening enthusiasts who established their summer home on a hillside here in 1887. They designed the grounds with one eye on their own pleasure and the other on their plan to leave the estate to the public as an educational institution. Now, in addition to being part of the university, it is the official arboretum of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Paul W. Meyer, the arboretum's director, says the Morrises collected all sorts of things -- garden styles, trees, ferns, porcelain, coins. Near the fernery were a palm house and water-lily house, neither of which has survived. "The Victorians were fascinated with the world around them," Mr. Meyer says. "There was a fern craze in the late 19th century that even had its own name, pteridomania. People were interested in ferns' endless diversity and their role in natural history -- in the fact that you could find imprints of ferns in fossils and coal. Ferns are very primitive plants. During the carboniferous era, ferns were extremely important, and a lot of the coal and oil we use today exists due to the energy-storing properties of ferns."

Robert Gutowski, the arboretum's curator for interpretation and its unofficial historian, says pteridomania was encouraged by scientific and technological advances. "Victorians learned by collecting and organizing and comparing," he says. "Plants are classified according to their reproductive parts, but it wasn't until the 1850's that people finally figured out how ferns reproduce. People were fascinated by plants anyway, and now all of a sudden you could classify ferns." There were plenty of ferns to classify, too: John Morris ordered some 500 varieties for the fernery here. Meanwhile, Mr. Gutowski adds, the radiator was developed -- not to warm humans, originally, but to warm plants in greenhouses. The fernery here is heated by hot water circulating through two sets of metal pipes, the lower one to warm the rocks and the upper one to warm the air.

Pteridomania was by no means limited to those rich enough to afford enclosed ferneries. People planted the hardier ferns in their gardens, sometimes in special sections that became outdoor ferneries. And even the members of the middle class could afford Wardian boxes -- glass boxes similar to terraria that sealed humidity in with moisture-loving plants. Developed by Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, an English botanist, the boxes were used at first to protect tropical plants during the long sea voyages that brought them to Europe and America. Soon, though, Wardian boxes filled with ferns or other unusual plants became a parlor craze. What's more, says Mr. Gutowski, as scientists realized that plants gave off oxygen, physicians began prescribing houseplants as boons to health.

For John and Lydia Morris, however, the fernery seems to have been purely an educational tool. John Morris bought a label maker and set about labeling the 500 kinds of plants in the collection, many of which he ordered from England and almost all of which could be easily admired from the meandering path. It's a mark of the seriousness with which he collected that the fernery, as lovely as it is, has no benches, or garden seats, or tea tables -- not a single place to sit and lose yourself in surroundings that are nothing short of dreamlike, surroundings that seem to belong to an ancient Japanese scroll or a painting by Rousseau.

The arboretum takes the fernery as seriously as John Morris did. "John died in 1915," says Mr. Meyer, the arboretum director, "and Lydia in 1932. Their will was incredibly farsighted. It talks about preserving open space and training stewards of the environment. We want to use the fern collection to tell the story of biodiversity and to tell people how the earth's resources are being lost at an alarming rate."

Not to mention telling the story of ferns and revealing the mysterious reproductive secret that stumped early botanists. Which is this: Ferns alternate between sexual and asexual generations. What you think of as ferns -- the plants you see growing -- are only half the story. A fern produces spores on the backs of some of its fronds, and eventually the spores are released. If a spore lands in a suitably wet place, it develops into a prothalium, a multi-celled but still tiny structure with both male and female reproductive features. The male parts release sperm that swim off in search of other prothalia, entering through tunnel-like openings to reach the eggs within. Fertilized eggs, in turn, grow into the fern's next visible, asexual generation.

One is tempted, of course, to wonder what the Victorians thought of such a system, given their own reputation for sexual repressiveness. One is even tempted to see their obsession with ferns -- lush, curvaceous, mysterious, exotic -- as a substitute for the sexuality their society denied them. But then ours is that sort of age, speculating endlessly, often pointlessly, on the hidden motives of others.

What we can see, clearly enough, is that the fernery here still exists, and that it is an amazing creation -- one of those triumphs of human ingenuity that sustain civilization. We can also see, though, that ferns were around long before we arrived to collect them under glass roofs or speculate about the motives of collectors; ferns will probably be around long after we are gone, too, if anything is. In the meantime, a tour along the fernery's meandering path -- past the goldfish and over the footbridge and through the little tunnel and up to the top of the promontory from which the waterfall splashes -- it's like walking through a Robert Louis Stevenson poem. It comes highly recommended.

Copyright © 1994 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published November 16, 1994.