I adore ferns. I like small dainty ferns, mid-sized compact ferns, and giant lush ferns that take up too much space to keep in the house. I have always thought that if you don’t love ferns then, then maybe you’re not really Southern.
When I’m out on a drive, nothing makes my heart happier than seeing an elegant porch lined with hanging ferns. My grandmother lived in a simple country house with a screened porch, so she couldn’t showcase her ferns like that. But she always managed to make ordinary ferns grow to extraordinary lengths on wrought-iron stands on each side of her front door. I’ve managed to grow huge ferns outside in very large pots, but I have never equaled the beauty and length of the ferns that welcomed guests into Maw-Maw’s home. She swore by Epsom salts: one tablespoon in a gallon of water, given to the ferns once a month. But I don’t know another soul who has succeeded with that formula. In fact, my aunt once killed every fern she had by following that recipe.
I will do almost anything to keep my ferns alive. My grandmother did, too. She used to keep them in her root cellar over the winter, under a grow lamp, but she was never able to keep very many alive. Still, she tried it every year. My poor grad-school roommates in Pittsburgh had to put up with my straggly ferns shedding leaves all over the floor while I desperately misted them in hopes of keeping them alive through the ungodly cold and short days of January and February.
What it comes down to is this: My life feels empty without ferns. I’d rather nurse them through a bad patch than heartlessly discard them at the first sign of strain. In a few more weeks, spring will be here, and I’ll be bringing out ferns from their winter home in our basement. I’ll be splitting some of them, repotting them, reviving them.
I can’t wait.
But you must always remember that growing ferns is an exercise in compromise and humility. Ferns grow where they want to grow — not where you want them to grow. They need light, but not too much light. They need more water than you think they do, but are always at risk of being over-watered. Until you get them in a spot that they like, they can be finicky and high-maintenance. But when you and the fern finally agree on a location and a watering schedule, that fern will bring elegance and grace to the most humble of homes.
A lush, healthy fern communicates a sense of Southern hospitably as earnestly as fine china or chinoiserie wallpaper. It says that your host cared enough to compromise with a fussy and exacting plant in order to reveal its full beauty, and then share that beauty with you, her guest.
The patient fern-keepers represent the kind of South I want to live in.