After failing to save my dying fern, I decided to look for help among experts.
Last winter, I had a moment of crisis after failing to keep my Green Clubfoot fern alive, despite establishing a complicated routine for my increasingly ailing plant: I set my fern’s pot on river rocks within a tray of warm water, for humidity; I alternated its position according to the sun, and misted its fronds twice a day. But no matter how damp I made the air or how much I considered its position to my radiator, by February it had shriveled in on itself, its tendrils drying to paper.
I spent the next spring and summer attempting to read my way into expertise, but every field guide or plant study seemed to unfurl more disparate curiosities. Did you know, for example, that ferns reproduce with spores, rather than with seeds? Since spores are invisible to the naked eye, eighteenth-century naturalists believed the seeds of ferns to be invisible—some even thought you could harness the power of invisibility if you managed to collect fern seeds and stuff them into a pocket. In Fern Fever, Sarah Whittingham describes a method by which these enthusiasts devised to gather the mysterious seeds from bracken:
In some places it was said that brake produced a small blue flowers once a year on 23 June, the night before the Feast Day of St John the Baptist, or Midsummer’s Day. The flower’s seed could be collected by stacking twelve pewter plates beneath a frond at midnight. It would fall through the first eleven plates and accumulate on the last one. However, fairies were also meant to be particularly active on Midsummer’s Eve, and if you were not careful, they would seize the spores as they fell and steal away with them.
I’m not one for faeries and spiritualism, but there is a kind of magic in ferns. My inability to nurture them notwithstanding, they are some of the most resilient members of Kingdom Plantae. The second edition of a Peterson field guide on Northeastern ferns speaks to their hardiness, noting that “ferns were among the first plants to recolonize Mount St. Helens following the massive volcanic eruption in 1980.”
During a writing retreat in the fall—hoping to quickly earn a visual education on the feathery plant—I rambled around the woods, taking my field guide with me, sure I’d make great progress by studying pteridophytes in the wild. But even with precise language and detailed figures, I became frustrated. After two weeks, I only felt confident in my recognition of three species: a crown of sweet-smelling hay-scented ferns, tall and ghostly pale; a tiny clubmoss; and a sprawling field of sensitive ferns. I decided if I was going to get anywhere in my fern education, I’d have to immerse myself in the company of experts.
It took me the greater part of the summer and fall to track down the whereabouts of the Fern Society of New York’s monthly meetings. I applied to be a member in June, paying thirty dollars to the greater American Fern Society then waiting to receive the American Fern Journal and the Fiddlehead Forum. Finally, in November, Robbin Moran, the New York society’s president, forwarded me the chapter’s latest newsletter. In it, John Mickel, the founder of the chapter and the editor of the Fiddlehead Forum, detailed the previous meeting:
When we got word, while we were in New Hampshire, that our speaker had the flu, our meeting for last Saturday quickly took on a new flavor! I shared some examples of the onocleoid ferns from our garden. This group includes the sensitive fern, the ostrich fern, and a beautiful specimen of Pentarhizidium orientale, a lesser-known fern in this group. It was an extended show ’n tell, along with a fern quiz with fronds from over a dozen ferns, which with the mild fall, are still green and thriving in our garden. Todd Manister was our master of ceremonies—what a great leader—introducing new members and keeping things moving with his wit and charm. Thanks, Todd! We had interesting plants for sale, and wonderful food and cider. It was enjoyable and thought-provoking for all.
So, on a chilly, bright Saturday morning in December, I rode the train up to the Bronx with a plate of cookies to attend my first meeting. The office where the Fern Society gathers is sterile and beige, lit by buzzing fluorescent lights. But the space was made cheerful by large branches of holly set on tables and the dozens of members who had already arrived, greeting each other and chatting animatedly.
As I set my cookies down onto a table already crowded with pastries, a man with white hair and square glasses approached me. It was John Mickel.
“So, what brings you here?” he asked, tentatively.
I registered his hesitation and felt, suddenly, the force of being out of place: I was younger than everyone else in the room by at least thirty years; I had recently dyed my hair platinum. This pang of insecurity had at first led me to wonder whether my interest in ferns was pure affectation, whether this morning would have been better spent in bed. Now, in the presence of the Fern Society founder, I feared being found out.
I explained how despite my studiousness, identification of the plants still eluded me, and how I was still haunted by the memory of the fern I had killed the previous winter. Mickel brightened up, and told me I’d come to the right place.
“I think you’ll find people who like ferns tend to be very interesting,” he added.
Before the meeting was called to order, Robbin Moran, whom I recognized from his headshot on the New York Botanical Garden website, held up what appeared to be a ball of twine: Selaginella lepidophylla, sometimes known colloquially as the resurrection fern. The desert plant is known for being able to stay alive without any water, despite its stems drying out and curling inward. Moran thought it was a nice symbol for the passing year.
“I’m going to fill this bowl with warm water and we’ll keep an eye on it,” he said, dropping it in.
Then, the presentations began. One member showed slides of his ever-growing garden in Eastchester—he said he didn’t have much use for a backyard, so he had filled it in with concentric circles of ferns. Another introduced her new chapbook of poems, Rosebuds and Elephant Ears, meditations on betafish. “I don’t recommend it to people who don’t like poetry,” she said.
The greater New York chapter of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators presented last, passing around detailed paintings of flowers, seeds, and other floral observation. An orchid illustrator bemoaned the decline of New York’s native wild orchid population—the flowers are increasingly threatened by a suburban habit of mowing and manicuring lawns. I felt very sad to hear this, and suddenly realized that, over the course of this meeting, I had been drawn in.
After the closing notes, I wandered over to the bowl at the front of the room where, just before, the resurrection fern had been a tight dry bundle. In an hour, however, it had bloomed entirely, like a hand opening, now lush and bright green.
“Here, try this,” Moran said, appearing by my side with a hand lens so that I might look a little closer.
Wei Tchou is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff and is one of the Daily’s correspondents.
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