Caught Green-handed

Someone called me out in the comments on a recent post, pointing out the nearly oxymoronic title of my blog. How can a plant geek be practical? It's true, my blog title is a bit tongue-in-cheek (sometimes more than a bit). Honestly, no one who identifies themselves as a plant geek can be entirely practical, nor should they be. What's the point if you don't go a little crazy once in awhile?

While I do try to make practical choices for the garden, selecting plants adapted to my conditions and requiring minimal maintenance and input, sometimes plant lust takes over and I end up with some plants that aren't all that practical. I don't worry so much about sensible choices when it comes to indoor plants, though I have eliminated anything that needs water more than once a week and, except for one or two plants under lights, they all handle the dark Pacific Northwest winters with aplomb.
Bromeliads are some of my favorite houseplants. Most of them are very easy to grow indoors and they always look good. This giant version of Vriesea ospinae-gruberi is impractical only in size. I thought it would be a smaller plant, like the versions I've seen in conservatories, but it's some sort of big hybrid. If I didn't have so many other plants, it wouldn't be a problem!

The greenhouse is probably the site of my least practical plant acquisitions, except for the ornamental and edible seedlings I'm raising for the garden and vegetable plot. Two groups really stand out for being high on the plant geek meter and low on practicality. The first group would be my 8 vireya rhododendrons. While vireyas can be grown as houseplants, they are much more successful in a greenhouse in my climate, and most grow too large to be usable for long as houseplants. Out of the plants currently in my collection, I'd probably only grow 'Periwinkle' indoors. It's a very compact plant with small, thick leaves, easily grown in a bright window. You can see photos of it in bloom here. Of course, if I didn't have so many houseplants already, I might grow more of them indoors. They all survived a horrid winter in a dark, dry apartment in Wisconsin. Indoor conditions in the northwest are much more to their liking (namely, humidity). I've read of people successfully growing vireyas in apartments in places like New York City, but personally I can't imagine keeping them happy in a dry East Coast Winter. 

Actually, on second thought, I might try Rhododendron acrophilum indoors, too. It's nice and compact, though it's having a bit of trouble with nutrient deficiencies. 

Even Rhododendron himantodes survived that apartment in Wisconsin, though it's so slow-growing I wouldn't recommend it to beginners.
But the group of plants that really came to mind as impractical are my tree ferns. I live in a distinctly zone 8a climate, not one of the milder climates of the PNW like the Puget Sound region or along the coast. I would need to take serious measures to protect a tree fern in the garden during a winter like the one we just experienced. However, unless it's a young plant that just needs some protection the first year, I absolutely refuse to grow anything outside that needs protection. Yet, somehow, I've now acquired five different species of tree ferns! How did that happen? Well, let's take a look.

My first tree fern was Blechnum gibbum. Technically, this fern is not a "true" tree fern, even though it forms a trunk. I haven't been able to find anything that says why it isn't a true tree fern, except that it isn't in the order Cyatheales, where all the true tree ferns are grouped. I got this fern when I was in Pennsylvania, and it went with me to both North Carolina and Wisconsin. It didn't especially like either place, (neither did I) but it survived. I've been keeping it in the greenhouse during winter and outdoors in summer, but this winter I decided to move it into the house. It didn't like the chilly, minimally-heated greenhouse, which we only heat to keep above 34F. This winter I kept it a bit warmer, but the lack of sun in PNW winters means the greenhouse doesn't get very warm during the day, either. Chilly, overly humid conditions (without sufficient air circulation) cause the fronds of this fern to turn brown and die. It has survived this several times and always rebounds, but I want to see what it can do indoors in the PNW (As opposed to how it performed in North Carolina after almost dying in the hot, soaking wet summer and dry winter). It's still shaking off its winter funk (just like us gardeners) but seems to be appreciating living in the house.
Blechnum gibbum, at least, will never get so big that I can't easily fit it in the house. Not so for the rest of my tree ferns.

 Currently in the greenhouse are the young Cyathea dregei I grew from spores. I wrote a (very geeky) post about it roughly three years ago. Confession time: I no longer remember if these baby ferns are from that first sowing, or from the second packet of spore I saved as a backup. This is a very slow-growing species, but don't those seem too small to be three years old? I find it even more unlikely that these would have survived without me during my time in Wisconsin, so perhaps they are from a second sowing that I can't remember, making them closer to two years old. Hmm. It shall remain a mystery. They could be from that first sowing, somehow kept alive through the turbulence of those 3+ years (sown in December, 2013). I seem to recall a lot of setbacks and near-losses that could account for them being so small.

It was good to see them growing again once we had a few sunny days to warm the greenhouse. While I intend to keep one (maybe two) for myself, the rest need to bulk up so I can give them to a friend with a nursery. I'll be carefully plying them with fertilizer this year (not too much, lest I burn them) to encourage lots of growth. Cyathea dregei is reportedly the hardiest tree fern, with tales of survival down to 7 degrees Fahrenheit. It also tolerates loosing its fronds better than most tree ferns, as they are often lost to fire or frost in habitat. Probably still needs protection in the coldest PNW winters, as those consist of dry Arctic air masses and days on end that may not rise above freezing, something these ferns don't experience in habitat. At least the slow growth means I don't have to worry about them filling up the greenhouse any time soon.

My next tree fern was a Dicksonia antarctica, the species most often sold as a "hardy" tree fern in the PNW. It is, if you live in one of the milder areas and protect it during winter. The specimens at Heronswood are notable examples. My Dicksonia (the smaller plant in the photo below, is a memento from a volunteer work party at the Gerdemann Botanic Preserve, a very special garden on the Oregon coast. One of the easiest tree ferns to grow, I'm somehow struggling to figure out how to make it happy. The last few fronds have been successively smaller and more yellow. I recently repotted it to a larger container. Perhaps that will help. That and warmer temperatures. Please grow, little fern!

The taller tree fern in the photo above is my latest acquisition, a Cyathea cooperi I found in a gallon container at Hortlandia for the ludicrously low price of $6. This tree fern is distinctly less hardy than Dicksonia antarctica, loosing its fronds around 27F and typically dying completely when temperatures fall below 22F. Not really a problem, since I intend to keep it in a container for the foreseeable future and protect it from temperatures below freezing. Besides, six dollars? Do you really expect me to pass that up, practical or not? It even had several plants in one pot. I separated one, and I'm debating going after the other two or three. Oh, but did I mention that it's significantly faster-growing than any of the tree ferns I've mentioned so far? And I bumped it up into a much larger container so it would put on as much growth as possible this summer. No, I can't envision any potential problems, like fitting it back into the greenhouse come fall...

 And then there are the new babies waiting in the wings (and by wings, I mean plastic salad containers under grow lights, perfect for starting spores). The photo below shows numerous young Cyathea dealbata with their first fronds, plus some moss and one other kind of fern that somehow got into the mix (top of the photo, right of center, darker green than the others). They might not look it, but these tiny bits of green are members of one of the most beautiful of all species of tree ferns. The fronds are (eventually) silvery-white underneath, carried on stems that are also silvery-white. For photos of larger specimens, visit Ian Barclay's tree fern page. These tiny plants grew from spore I collected from the specimens at Cistus Nursery during my tenure as propagator and sowed last summer. They just started producing fronds a couple months ago. This species is a bit hardier than Cyathea cooperi, down to at least 22F, with at least one specimen recovering from 14F. Most of these babies will return to Cistus... once they get just a bit bigger.

These two tiny baby ferns may be the ones I'm most excited about, as I thought this sowing had been a complete flop. This is the result of a sowing of Dicksonia squarrosa, also collected from a plant at Cistus Nursery. Apparently I did something wrong, either in collecting or sowing, as I only got a handful of spores to germinate, and only two of those have produced baby ferns. Damaged at temperatures around 24F, this tree fern has the unique ability to resprout from the base if the top dies. It has a beautiful form and texture, both in the frond and trunk. Not so beautiful at this stage, especially surrounded by gross, bubbly algae.

Here's a closer look at one of the two D. squarrosa. At least, I hope that's what they are. There's always a chance some other spore floated into the mix, and in fact there is another type of fern that germinated in this container, as it did in the Cyathea dealbata container. They are very distinct, but I'm not sure yet what they are. Anyway, these two D. squarrosa, if that's what they are, will be staying with me. Ann, the Seedstress of Cistus Nursery, should have collected the latest batch of spore from the plant at the nursery this week and will give it another shot, hopefully with better results than either my attempt at the nursery or at home.

So, counting all the little Cyathea dealbata, I literally have dozens of tree ferns. Not very practical, is it? Even if most of those are only a few millimeters tall. This is definitely a case of my geek nature winning over common sense.


  1. "Practical" is one of those terms best described in terms of a continuum, isn't it? I don't think it's impractical for a plant geek to experiment with different species of plants to test their boundaries rather than allowing published resources based on someone else's experience (and who knows what variables) to dictate your planting decisions. Now, if you plant the same thing a dozen times over with the same result - death - that would be nonsensical. I hope your tree fern assortment continues to grow and thrive. It looks to me that some have already proved their mettle.

    1. I like your thought process. Except I won't be testing these plants where I currently live. It's more like I'm collecting them for when I move to a more suitable climate. Hopefully I can keep them a bit happier instead of testing their mettle to the limits.

  2. If you go to a really old, unchanged garden in Southern California you can likely see a tree fern or two--they were popular to plant in the '50s and '60s, I believe, but mostly it has gotten too dry here due to the urban heat island thing, along with that climate change "hoax".

    Tree ferns in Wisconsin cannot be deemed practical, but since you moved to a warmer climate, you are very practical, I would say!

    1. I only saw one tree fern even when I went to Brookings, OR last fall, a place that has close to the best climate for tree ferns in the continental US. Such a waste.

      The Cyathea dregei and Dicksonia antarctica might be worth trying here, but I think both would still need protection in cold winters that I'm not willing to provide. I need to move to an even warmer climate.

  3. The world needs more plant you keep on keeping on Evan!

  4. "These tiny plants grew from spore..." I find this astonishing. You basically have a NICU nursery for tree ferns. It requites a level of patience I cannot fathom. I do however get the excitement of seeing something growing from almost nothing to a gorgeous plant.

    1. Ironic that I'm so impatient for my garden to fill in when I can be so patient with these tiny ferns.


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