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.