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A coat of ferns

As summer approaches, it's a great time to bring home big Boston ferns in baskets to hang between porch columns or in a planter to place on a corner pedestal. Right now is the perfect time to find a wealth of these huge, healthy plants at local garden shops.

Ferns have been around in various forms for more than 300 million years. With an understated elegance, these natives return year after year in the wild, dressing the Earth in green petticoats with a ruffle of delicate arching forms and lacy fronds.

Most like a shady spot where they can hold rich, woodsy earth under their roots, but others seek out rock crevices and a bit of sun.

In Harlan County near Pine Mountain in southeastern Kentucky, ferns begin to send up their fiddlehead crosiers in late April, after the first spring wildflowers have gone by and the leaves of trees overhead have come out to shelter the forest floor. The slightly acidic soil there is perfect for many ferns.

Since the mid-1800s, when the Victorian era witnessed plant explorers inspired by Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle, gardeners have welcomed discoveries.

Early leaded-glass terrariums called Wardian cases enabled ferns to be transported in a safe habitat and raised indoors.

Etchings in books like John Williamson's 1878 Ferns of Kentucky not only catalogued and illustrated the Commonwealth's ferns, but also pinpointed locations for finding them in the wild. Frances Parsons' 1899 guide How to Know the Ferns both encouraged and admonished collectors.

The story of two sisters born in the early 1900s on a farm along Tates Creek Road provides an uplifting example of the times. Katherine and Minnie Pettit were gardeners and social activists.

Katherine is known for her hand in the establishment and direction of the Hindman and Pine Mountain Settlement Schools in eastern Kentucky for over 30 years, with the aim of improving the health and welfare of people in isolated mountain areas.

Minnie, who married Lexington Clinic founder Waller Bullock, was instrumental in organizing the Lexington Garden Club and created a personal garden that still exists today at the Bodley-Bullock house on Gratz Park.

Maidenhair and sensitive ferns have held a place in the shaded courtyard there for almost a century, just outside of the rooms Katherine used when she visited.

Neighbor Betty Lawrence, who as a child helped Bullock in the garden, remembers accompanying Minnie on numerous fern-collecting forays.

Among the family's archived papers, a list entitled ”Ferns at the Pine Mountain Settlement School“ can be found. Included in the 28 entries were New York, rattlesnake, sensitive, maidenhair, cinnamon, broad beech, lady and hay scented ferns.

Katherine Pettit, who in the early 1900s managed to coordinate designing the Pine Mountain Settlement School's original educational programs, supervising the building of cabins using local rock and lumber milled on the grounds, as well as putting in a sewer system and planting crops, was also well aware of the value in preserving the area's natural heritage.

Nancy Adams, the school's current executive director, says Pettit ”treasured the local flora very much, landscaping with plants natural to the area.“

She tells of how after having cleared the grounds of native rhododendron trees while structures were being built, Pettit had workers replace them again to restore the area, and installed rock-walled garden terraces constructed from hillside stone.

Shortly before she died in 1936, Pettit worked with E. Lucy Braun — a renowned Cincinnati biologist and author of The Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America — to establish the Save Kentucky's Primeval Forest League in order to protect the original deciduous forests of eastern Kentucky.

Their intent was to avert logging of virgin forests in the Lynn Fork area of Perry County's Leatherwood Forest.

The attempt failed.

However, the Pine Mountain Settlement School, now itself a National Historic Landmark and a Kentucky State Nature Preserve, has become a center for environmental education and conservation.

Ben Begley, the environmental education director at the school, leads a four-day workshop, ”In the Footsteps of Lucy Braun,“ which includes presentations and hikes to some of the most beautiful forest areas in Kentucky.

This year, programs are scheduled to begin June 11, and August 13. Early reservations are recommended. See the school's Web site at www.pinemountainsettlementschool.com.

And the ferns on Pettit's list? Begley easily located many of them this spring on a two-hour hike around the school grounds, and reports that even a couple more species have been identified.

Maidenhair and sensitive ferns, just as in the Bullock garden, flourish in one cabin's front garden.

In the nearby woods, a pipevine swallowtail butterfly rests on a newly unfurled New York fern, and by Pettit's cabin, a colony of interrupted ferns persists in a shady glade.

For gardeners at home, Begley notes that dry-laid stones make good substitutes for natural rock crevices, pointing out some silvery and ebony spleenwort that have already taken hold in some newer walls.

As part of the current preservation efforts at the school, traditional dry stone wall construction techniques workshops will be presented by internationally renowned stone mason Richard Tufnell. One is scheduled for October 10.

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