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Sculpted by nature

Ferns of All Shapes and Sizes Adorn a Botanist's Home

June 27, 2004|Susan Heeger

In a kitchen window, where most people set violets or unripe tomatoes, Barbara Joe Hoshizaki has a row of jars, each containing a misty, creeping plant. Jungle green, they spread like clouds behind the glass, fogging it with transpiration. Ferns as short as grass blades; ferns with parsley-shaped fronds; doll-size, enchanting ferns. Even Hoshizaki, a botanist who has studied ferns for more than 50 years, is enchanted. "Ah, miniatures," she exclaims. "So much small, fine detail. They're some of my favorites."

As expected of a longtime collector, her inventory list numbers more than 1,000 and includes ferns large and small now growing in and around her Los Angeles house: the tender Asian native Goniophlebium persicifolium in a window of a greenhouse room, the curly bird's nests under patio shade, staghorns sprouting from garden walls, painted ferns in a boggy border, tree ferns, chain ferns, an aquatic 'Mosquito' in a tub of water.

Like the tiny greens in her kitchen, some appear most un-fernlike: One desert species resembles four-leaf clovers with the texture of felt. A woodland cousin has fronds that look like little beads on strings. There's a chartreuse ground cover and a tall vine.

The wide differences among ferns help explain the fascination with them, says Hoshizaki, a professor emeritus of botany at Los Angeles City College and coauthor of the "Fern Grower's Manual." "Everyone knows the characteristic, divided shape of a 'ferny' leaf," she says. "But many ferns don't have those leaves, and many plants that do aren't ferns."

Hoshizaki got hooked on ferns while in a Roosevelt High School science class, where she discovered that they completely change their appearance as they mature. "I couldn't get over that," she says. For her, it just added to the intrigue of a plant hundreds of millions of years old that once dominated the earth. When she reached UCLA, one of her professors, the botanist Mildred E. Mathias, assigned her to research and catalog all ferns in the nursery trade. Back in 1950, they were thought to number about 30. Today, the count has reached nearly 900, out of about 12,000 fern species worldwide.

While in college and graduate school, Hoshizaki became so expert at identifying ferns that she helped collectors and nurseries authenticate expensive rarities. She wrote articles for scholarly journals, won grants and traveled around the globe to observe ferns in their native habitats. In 1975, her first "Fern Grower's Manual" was published. By then, she had developed her own collection, which includes specimens from East Asia, the South Pacific and Mexico, as well as Central and South America.

Throughout her career, she has introduced about 50 fern species, of which at least 10 are commercially available today. In lectures, she tells audiences that ferns aren't hard to grow if you know what they want: rich, well-draining soil; regular watering; suitable light (part-shade for most); occasional feeding; and monitoring for pests and diseases. "Pick the right fern for your conditions." She says lace, leather, holly, autumn, Cretan brake and Cooper's tree ferns are good choices for beginners.

She adds that although true ferns don't flower or produce seeds (they reproduce via simple one-celled spores), you can expect their charms to be somewhat seasonal in Southern California. "They tend to be glorious in late spring and early summer," she says, "and can look a bit ratty in December." Some, such as painted ferns, die back in winter, while others, the leather ferns among them, flourish. "Ferns go through cycles of popularity," Hoshizaki notes. "Victorian England had a fern craze that lasted 40 years. For us, it's been longer now. What I think it shows is that, especially in cities, we crave the serenity of green."

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Resource Guide

Los Angeles International Fern Society, www.fernsociety.org.

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