Abies balsamea 'Nana'

Abies balsamea 'Nana'

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Tale of Survival: Blechnum gibbum

As work today has been delayed, if not suspended, because of the snow we had Tuesday night and the freezing temperatures this morning, I've decide to highlight a plant that reminds me of warmer places and times: Blechnum gibbum, or dwarf tree fern. Ok, so most of what I have currently would remind anyone of warmer times and places, but that's beside the point. This fern can be found across the Pacific islands. There is a cultivar of this fern called 'Silver Lady', which I'm skeptical of having any significant difference to the species. Supposedly the cultivar 'Silver Lady' has a slight silvery cast to the fronds. (Does anyone know if there IS a difference?) Further confusion has arisen because the straight species is often sold under that cultivar name and has developed the common name of Silver Lady fern because of it. I'm not sure which one I have, the species or the cultivar. Either way I love it and it was a steal at $20 because it already had almost 6" of trunk! (That's a lot of trunk for this little tree fern. The fronds reach only 2 feet in length and the trunk can grow over 3 feet tall, but remains only 2-3 inches in diameter, great proportions for an indoor tree fern!

I've always been enchanted with tree ferns. I love ferns. I love trees. Put them together and I'm a lustful mess. So after seeing the miniature grove of Blechnum gibbum 'Silver Lady' at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA, (insert picture that I curse myself for not taking) I finally decided I couldn't wait until I had a garden mild enough for outdoor tree ferns. I had found one small enough to be grown as a houseplant and I wanted it! Luckily I found some at a local nursery while I was living in Kennett Square of a good size and price. Much better than anything I had found online and no shipping!

Since I didn't take a picture of it when I first brought it home, and I don't seem to have any pictures of the planting at Longwood, I'll have to borrow this gorgeous photo from Forest Ferns, below. This is what a happy Blechnum gibbum looks like. 

Blechnum Gibbun growing at Taman Orkid Garden Kuala Lumpur
Photo credit to Forest Ferns. For more information on this and other tree ferns visit their site: http://www.forestferns.co.uk/tree-ferns/blechnum/blechnum-gibbum
Now that you've seen a healthy specimen, try not to hate me for what follows. It is my first tree fern after all and, as with any first child, one is bound to make mistakes. 


My Blechnum gibbum performed quite well in a shaded area outside in the Pennsylvania summer, protected from excessive rain, and continued equally well when it was moved inside in the fall. Then I moved to North Carolina and had it outside on the deck during one of the rainiest summers in recent memory. Growing up in Washington State I had little experience with summers this humid and rainy, and I may have overwatered. (It was hot! When it's hot plants need water, right?!) Apparently, tree ferns, like Tillandsias, don't tell you they are unhappy until they are practically at Death's door. The fronds started turning yellow, then brown, then black. I took immediate action, protecting it from the rain and watering the soil only when it became dry on the surface while keeping the trunk and remaining fronds misted. The rate of browning slowed and eventually stopped, but it was hardly taking any water up from the soil so I barely watered it at all, mostly misting the trunk and fronds. I watched and waited for some signs of recovery, but for months all I had was a stable condition. It did put out one flush of new fronds, very small, but at least they weren't ugly and brown. That's something, I suppose.

Finally, in the last month or so, I have seen new crosiers (fiddleheads or new fronds) forming and unfurling. It has been taking up water faster and seems to be on the road to recovery! I'm hoping that each new frond will be progressively larger and closer to normal size.

Here you can see one frond that has been unfurling this week and a new crozier in the center about to unfurl. 

The newest crosier, with another one tucked down underneath out of view in this shot.

The whole, pitiful creature. The browning is still obvious on the few fronds that
survived from its near-death experience.
Normally this fern has an upright, shuttle-cock form, but between almost dying and receiving light from the side for months, it has developed more of an umbrella shape. I wouldn't mind it if it hadn't been for that whole near-death thing. The newer fronds are more upright, for now, but I'll have to wait for each one to fully expand before I can tell if my little tree fern is really making a full comeback or if it is still just getting by.

Getting this small tree fern (and working at a place that is famous for zone-pushing) has inspired me to try more tree ferns, even some of the almost-hardy ones. I have a tiny Dicksonia antarctica in a 4-inch pot. I like that it is so small for now because I will be able to enjoy it for many more years as a houseplant and perhaps by the time it outgrows that role I will have a greenhouse, sunroom, or even a garden mild enough to grow it in. 

I also have spore of Cyathea dregei, supposedly the hardiest tree fern (and of course one of the slowest growing). Several small specimens grow outside against a protected wall at The Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. I have sowed some of the spores twice now and mold has invaded my salad container-turned propagator both times. I'll go into more detail about my first two attempts after I make my third, which should be in a couple months. I will say this: I suspect that the mold spores survived in the perlite in the soil mix I used both times, as I have two successful sowings of other fern spores using an organic mix without perlite. 

Has anyone else grown tree ferns? Which ones and how do you take care of them? If you're in a cold climate, where do you keep yours in the winter? Or if not tree ferns, do you have a favorite fern?

Until next time...

5 comments:

  1. Ah come on! While it would be nice to have that gorgeous fern from Forest Ferns, or what you saw at Longwood, yours is pretty fabulous. And it really does look happy and on. The road to recovery. Wet and humid in the summer, what a concept! I do love our dry sunny summers...

    I've got two Dicksonia Antarctica, one you probably saw an image of on my blog yesterday. It was an inspired purchase after a trip to San Francisco and walking through the forest at Golden Gate Park. It's been pretty happy in a container, although it's not putting on much growth. The second one started to look pretty sad during the summer of 2012 so it went in the ground the spring of 2013 . I wrapped the heck out of it before our December cold but really, what chance does it stand up against 12F and under freezing for a week?

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  2. I did see one of your dicksonias yesterday (and drooled a bit). It looks wonderful. It will probably put out a flush of growth once things warm up a bit in spring. I wouldn't hold much hope for your dicksonia in the ground, but I've heard of equally strange things happening. Maybe not stranger things, mind you, but equally strange. Ian Barclay has an old webpage on angelfire with a ton of information on tree ferns if you want something to read and drool over. http://www.angelfire.com/bc/eucalyptus/treeferns/index.html

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    1. I'm so sorry, Alison! I didn't mean to remove your comment! I was checking my comments and thought I was in the spam section and saw your comments. Obviously I wasn't in the spam folder but I thought I was. I was trying to figure out how to move your comments out of the spam folder, and accidentally removed it entirely. How embarrassing. Thank you reading and commenting! My little fern does look better than when I thought it was dying, but you should have seen it before. Hopefully I'll get it back to full health.

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