In the fronds of an affair

It has no flowers, no smell and only one colour. But Anna Pavord is smitten
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The Independent Online
I am in love and this time it is serious. I have not done anything rash yet and am still trying to find out if this might be a reciprocal affair. I have had enough of the other kind. The whole business is tricky, because no one seems to know much about the object of my desire. Before taking the final plunge, I went to talk to Martin Rickard. He is the man who brought the two of us together.

He was sympathetic. Others, he said, shared my passion for Dryopteris wallichiana, but he was cautiously optimistic that the two of us might have a future together. "Give it time," he advised. I am still thinking about it. I would prefer to dream than have the whole thing end in tears.

For looks, you could not do better. This fern is tall, elegant, formally and soberly suited but without a hint of stuffiness. The fronds, which are just beginning to uncurl, arrange themselves with the easy poise that comes of 400 million years of breeding. The midribs of the fronds are covered with a thick layer of black scales, which looks like fur. "Is that it?" you might ask. "No flowers? No fruit? No smell?" No, none of those. There is no accounting for love.

Dryopteris filix-mas is a common British native, but D. wallichiana comes from Central Asia and has a faintly dangerous air about it, unusual in ferns. It is slower growing than the common male fern, gradually reaching 3ft or more. In his Worcestershire nursery, Martin Rickard had it growing in a pot under cover where it is being groomed for an appearance at the Chelsea Flower Show later this month. I first saw it on his gold medal stand last year and that is where I fell in love.

The Rickards have recently completed a tricky manoeuvre: moving themselves and several thousand plants from Shropshire to Worcestershire where, with some friends, they have taken over a vast house and garden at Kyre Park. Restoration work has just begun.

Potentially, it is a ferny kind of place. There is plenty of water, in lakes, streams and cascades, and plenty of shade, under some magnificent trees, to provide the cool growing conditions that ferns prefer.

Kyre Park seems to have been laid out as a "wilderness" garden in the middle of the 18th century. The Rickards have cleared many of the informal winding paths that were an essential element in these carefully manipulated wildernesses, organised to give the best views of tufa grottoes, waterfalls and conduits. The hart's tongues will love it. So will the osmundas, already planted along the bank of one of the lakes below the house.

Two years ago I planted three osmundas along the back of the border under our study window. From the window, I hoped we would be able to look at each other at close quarters. From the lawn, they would provide a steady backdrop for more hectic peonies in front. I am still waiting for the full effect, for the plants are only half-way towards their full height of 5ft.

Mine are the standard royal ferns, Osmunda regalis, grand, leafy, the green fronds turning clear butter yellow in autumn. Mr Rickard had a sumptuous type - 'Purpurascens' with deep purple stems. It might get me on the rebound if the affair with Dryopteris wallichiana does not work out. Would it do in a pot, I wondered? There is a cool cobbled courtyard at the back of the house that needs something quiet but sustaining in it. The purple stemmed fern might be the answer.

Mr Rickard, who keeps many of his own show ferns in pots, thought it would, as long as it never dried out. In the wild, these are water margin plants. In my mother's garden, they grew by a stream with tall yellow flag iris and shaggy-leaved ligularias.

Willy-nilly, ferns turn you into a collector because without any prompting, they try out such a huge variety of dotty tricks. They suddenly produce flourishes like bunches of parsley at the ends of their leaves. They subdivide wildly to make leaf patterns more complex than the Amazon delta. A seemingly sensible, law-abiding fern such as the hart's tongue will suddenly flip its lid and perm the edges of its leaves into frilly curves, or experiment with a black stem instead of a green one.

Symmetry is built into them, so even if a fern is being lunatic, it is graceful with it. Grace is perhaps a fern's most important attribute, but it is a quiet one. Ferns do not tug at your skirt as you walk by. They just get on with being ferny and wait for you to notice what they are about.

All ferns prefer some shade but, says Mr Rickard, the golden male fern, Dryopteris affinis, and the soft shield fern, Polystichum setiferum, both British natives, will put up with sun especially if you can mulch to keep their roots cool. The big family of polypodys is equally obliging. The common polypody, P. vulgare, has sown itself along the arms of an old espalier pear in the cobbled yard where I want to have the potted royal fern.

Mr Rickard has the national collection of polypodys, all planted out in an enormous bed that leads from the house down to the valley and the lowest lake. The mass planting makes you all the more aware of the extraordinary diversity of fern families.

The common polypody is a plain fern, made up of a stiffish midrib with simple leaflets sprouting along it. Mr Rickard has 30 different kinds for sale, including P. australe 'Cambricum' a clone which comes from the site near Cardiff where this fern was first discovered in 1668. It has taken him 12 years to build up sufficient stock to sell.

'Cornubiense' does not have such a rarified pedigree, but spreads to make excellent ground cover. The fronds are wider, lacier than the common polypody and they peak in late summer. The new fronds start to uncurl in late July. I have it growing with cyclamen under a smoke bush, Cotinus coggygria, and the fresh green fronds are at their best as the cyclamen start to flower.

Rickard's Hardy Ferns, Kyre Park, Kyre, Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire WR15 8RP (01885 410282). Send five first-class stamps for informative catalogue. Nursery and garden open daily (9am-5pm), admission to garden £1.50. For the British Pteridological Society contact: Alison Paul, Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD. Membership (£25 pa) includes twice-yearly issues of Fern Gazette.