The Secret Life of my Fern

May 2018

It’s been several months since I got my last tattoo. It’s bigger than I initially planned but it was not a whim. It’s my second piece of body art and for me, just like the first, it is way to mark a change in my life and to make visible a mental shift: a permanent external cue of an inner moment of realization perhaps. It sounds grand I know, but if you’re going to have an image indelibly marked on your skin it’s important to have a good reason for it I guess. And since psychological trauma often leaves no apparent trace, I wanted to memorialize a significant period of mental ill-health that has shaped me so profoundly.

I chose a spot on my inner wrist. The tattoo is there to view, but it’s not readily on display; it is for me. I see it several times a day but it can be hidden if I want – not everyone appreciates body art it’s true and there are moments when I don’t feel like revealing it.

After months of contemplation, I selected a fern illustration, a monochrome drawing from a piece of pottery. As a relatively new ‘gardener’ (I use the term advisedly in my case) I find ferns both curious and attractive, but the connotations of this particular design went beyond an aesthetic appreciation of their form. I am not the first to be interested in ferns of course, and some research suggested that they have long been an important cultural symbol.

The Victorians were fascinated with them. This love affair was called ‘fern fever’ or sometimes pteridomania with pterido being Latin for fern (pteris comes from the Greek word for feather); and it lasted more for than 50 years. Not obviously beautiful in the way that a rose is with its velvety imbricated petals and glorious scents, ferns have other contradictory attractions.

Attractive to look at when displayed in an ornamental arrangement, but on walking through a shaded forest these giant plants can seem to possess a behemoth quality. They are a highly diverse species and yet are instantly recognizable; they are commonplace but extraordinary with it.

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Ferns at Crummock Water, Lake District Taken by Briony Doudleday of Bees Gardens

New leaves or ‘fronds’ as they are known, grow through an unfurling of a spiral shaped crozier or fiddlehead. These stylised shapes resembling the scrolls of a violin conceal the final stage of the fern’s development.

It is said that myths first arose around ferns because folk couldn’t understand how a plant without flowers or seeds reproduced itself. It was the mystery of the non-flowering fern that led to folklore about mystical blossom with magical properties. There are several strikingly similar legends from across Northern and Eastern Europe foretelling of riches and eternal happiness being bestowed on those who come across an elusive fern flower. They were never found of course; ferns do not flower.

In fact, they do not reproduce like flowering plants at all, instead most fern varieties emit tiny spores which develop into gametophytes, embryonic plantlets that contain only half of the chromozones required for them to realize their potential. A fern can only develop if the gametophyte’s egg is fertilized by its male sperm. These gamete are both found on the same tiny plantlet coming together in fertilisation only in the right environmental conditions.

Ferns are generally thought of as weeds, being poisonous to most grazing animals, but they do have their uses as food (fiddleheads are edible for a very short time in their development) and as biofertilizer. The brake fern (Pteris vittata) is grown to remove arsenic from the soil and emerging research suggests that other varieties may be able to remove certain chemical pollutants from the atmosphere.

Interest in this unique plant helped to foster the eccentric identity of the amateur Victorian naturalist, a largely male figure, marked by his passion for discovery. The search for interesting varieties was not limited to Britain; ‘pteridomaniacs’ risked life and limb scaling rock faces and traversing swamps as far away as North America and the Antipodes looking for an exotic fern.

Initially these fascinating and diverse plants appealed to self-styled intellectuals who relished in their taxonomic classifications and esoteric life-cycles, but their appeal soon widened.

Ferns later became a cultural phenomenon adorning Victorian architectural design, interiors, pottery and textiles. Even a favourite biscuit of the time, the custard cream, is illustrated with the fronds of fern leaves.

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Victorian jug with ferns made by Brownfield’s in 1864.

Collecting rare ferns and then displaying them in terrariums was considered a suitable hobby for a Victorian middleclass lady. Small parties out on mini expeditions to find an elusive variety to add to the collection provided the conditions for romantic encounters between men and women otherwise unlikely to interact; much like the gamete pairing of their fern counterparts.

Also during this time, ferneries exhibited the diversity of these idiosyncratic plants in gothic styled surroundings purposely designed to show-off their monstrous natures. These spaces were also a way of imagining prehistoric environments. This not only chimed with an interest in the prehistoric and with fossil discoveries of the time, but perhaps also with a wish to portray historical change as an inevitable march towards progress with Victorian values being the climactic succession.

Collecting, identifying, labelling and displaying ferns certainly resonated with the colonial imaginary of the period. The race to find a new variety or to possess the rarest fern even resulted in the extinction of one British fern. However, their cultivation in terrariums did result in some new sub-species borne through chance cross-fertilization. Like colonialism, Victorian fern fever had far reaching impacts on landscapes and the sensibilities of the time [1].

Notwithstanding their unsavoury historical baggage ferns have become popular once more. Again we see them illustrating interior designs and clothing, but they have a new identity it seems. Ferns have in some Western imaginaries become synonymous with the idea of resilience; with withstanding adversity, and with bouncing back after crisis. It’s perhaps easy to understand why. Ferns are one of the most ancient species on Earth with fossil records of their existence as far back as the Devonian period 360 million years ago.

Ferns succeed in environments which would inhibit most flowering plants. They prosper in shaded groves, inhospitable bogs and rock crevices; and they are often the primary colonisers of bare earth when conditions are otherwise too harsh to allow for other species take hold. Ferns are amongst the first plants to return after an environmental shock like flooding. Pioneer species like ferns are introduced in re-vegetation projects to enable the re-colonisation of disturbed areas. As plants colonise an area, insects, birds and animals return until biodiversity is rich once again.

Recent research shows ferns to be resistant to stress, and highly adaptive. Unsurprisingly then policy documents detailing approaches to govern for social resilience may be illustrated with a unfurling frond. What is more, a google image search for resilience more often than not will come up with a daisy pushing up through concrete or a fern’s crozier. And I certainly found empathy with the fern’s association with resilience.

Dealing with the shock of my husband’s dementia diagnosis and coming out of a particularly dark period of depression meant I needed to muster all of own resilience to get better. It is said in current phychological literature that those possessed of greater personal resilience are better able to get through difficult experiences. And while it wasn’t a vernacular I used at the time to describe my own experiences, I certainly needed all of my strength and adaptive capacities to return to a semblance of normality after the depression had lifted. Getting over depression is not simply a return to better mental health: after a period of being out of social contact, of not being at work or attending to other duties, it was clear that I needed to adapt to the shifting conditions that had changed whilst I had remained static.

I was off work for six months and probably unravelling long before then. My days did not involve routine but simply getting through. It felt momentous to simply brush my hair or to take a shower. A walk around the block when it could be managed was exhausting. I lay down or I slept much of the time unable to muster the energy for anything else. I didn’t have the motivation or concentration required for a book or film, or indeed even a conversation. Depression for me has felt hopeless or despairing but it has also felt of nothing: of hollowness. The world carries on and people get on with their lives, but I could only observe through a thick plate of glass.

The tiny gains edging me towards normal routine, psych drugs and therapy helped to lift the fug and eventually I returned to work and to life. My body was weak from inactivity and my mind foggy from catatonia but at this moment I required more strength than ever. I needed to be a primary colonizer, to adapt and spring back to a work and social environment that had moved on. It required all my efforts and even then I lapsed back several times to the dark familiar space of melancholy.

I don’t think I possessed resilience. And I am still far from resilient but because of these struggles I sympathise with the quality of resilience. And I like ferns. I think they are beautiful and I love that they thrive in dark spaces and bounce back better after forest fires. I am not so hubristic as to suggest that I possess those qualities, but I like to be reminded that they exist. That on some forest floor a tiny gametophyte is anchored on bare earth waiting for the right conditions so it can realise its potential and unfurl its magnificent fiddlehead.

After some weeks, I chose my fern illustration and went to have it marked forever on my body. The tattoo artist’s needle pushed ink into the deepest layers of my skin. It’s not without pain but it’s not unbearable. The large design meant the experience lasted for a couple of hours but all the while I thought about the fern and its meaning. Perhaps as a reminder of why I was putting myself through this expensive self-imposed discomfort? I don’t know.

As the artist worked I didn’t look much at my wrist save only to check his progress. It’s an intimate act – to write permanently on someone’s body, but we didn’t talk and I was glad of it. Time stopped – much like my period of depression – and I was surprised when the hypnotic buzzing gun stopped and he said ‘all done’. Nervous I looked down at my sore skin. The image hid beneath smudges of ink but when he cleaned the area the fern shone through. Wow it’s beautiful I thought. It will live with me now.

After revealing my tattoo to a friend she told me that ferns are miniature universes. She explained that the basic fern leaf pattern is an example of a fractal design. This intrigued me. While I can’t pretend to understand fractal geometry it seems that the fern shape is an example of a ‘self-similar set’ [2.]. In other words, the fern’s overall shape is also present in the shapes on branches of a fern, and the patterns on those branches are also same shape – and so on.

Barnesy Fern
Barnesy Fern

Zooming into or out from a mathematic representation called a ‘Barnesy Fern’ (named after mathematician Barnesley in 1988) will only reveal another fern. This type of geometry can be used for modelling larger structures [3.]. However, real ferns are not mathematical models and they possess randomness and difference. This randomness can also be built into models too to demonstrate how imperceptible differences in form can unfurl and create complex worlds.

In darker moments I like to think of the fern’s potential. How a tightly coiled crozier holds within it a large beautiful feather-shaped leaf with its intricate shapes. I like that it unfurls with the changing conditions and that it moves towards light. As it opens it shows what it is. It gains the confidence to be itself. In order to thrive the fern must adapt. It must open up and become less rigid, moving with storms in order to survive them. It’s now an emblem for my own mental health.

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The idea of ferns as symbols for healing and addressing mental illhealth was not lost on the Victorians either. Ferneries were thought to provide solace for the mentally ill and miniature ones were sometimes a feature in lunatic asylums.

These arguably sentimental notions go beyond the Victorian figure of the explorer and I expect they also conjured feelings of optimism in the many who raised ferns in glass terrariums. I don’t mean to universalize – all meanings are rooted in particular cultural epochs of course, but these sentiments and their fern manifestations have wide resonance it seems.

For the Maori, ferns, or koru as they known, represent new life. They are said to embody strength and healing. Two fronds drawn together are associated with growing together and with the interdependency of individual organisms. Similarly in Japanese culture, ferns still symbolize hope and family.

Through the unfolding of a new lifeform everything is reborn and continues. Ferns for many including myself represent transformation, renewal and hope. As Tancredi explains in my favourite novel The Leopard ‘For everything to stay the same, everything must change’.

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My Fern

[1.] For some excellent additional reading on Victorian fern mania and fern extinctions read the Virtual Victorian and Cog Steam Punk

Also see Sarah Whittingham’s brilliant book (2009) on ‘The Victorian Fern Craze’.

[2.] See the Fractal Foundation for a good introduction to fractal science.

[3.] According to Spatial Researcher and Sustainable Development Practitioner, Kay Pallaris at Mapping Futures ‘Fractal patterns are key in urban design for wellbeing’.

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