Right: Dryopteris formosana is an example of both the arched delicacy and the hardiness that have made ferns a favorite foliage plant since their Victorian heyday.
Middle: A semi-evergreen scaly male fern, Dryopteris affinis 'Cristata The King,' is popular for the bold foliage that radiates out at each tip like a little explosion.
Far right: An unknown species of Polystichum, this spiny holly fern is evergreen and small enough to fit easily into urban gardens.
Below: A dwarf ecotype Aleuticum fern captures all the charm of the more familiar maidenhair.
JONES is at heart a collector — of knowledge, objects, and, luckily
for many Northwest gardeners, of ferns. As you approach the hoop house
on her Gold Bar acreage, classical music pours out the door, and sleek
gray cats ("three sisters and a brother — you can't break up a
set") wind themselves around post and potting bench. The big log
house, where Jones uses the dining-room table to keep the books for her
Fancy Fronds Nursery business, is filled with antiquities and
curiosities, just as the hoop house is packed with an amazing variety of
ferns with botanical names that Jones can reel off from memory, along
with their tempting attributes.
Jones grew up in Yuma, Ariz., in a family of doctors,
which may be why scientific names come so effortlessly. Her early
passions were music, literature and drama, but she began identifying
birds and plants by their Latin names on childhood excursions with her
mother, a life-long birder.
|Son Felix sits among the ferns at the front of the cabin, flanked by a pair of winged griffins.
moved to Seattle to study children's theater at the University of
Washington. For her final science credit, she took a class in botany
(the only academic training she has in her subject) and ran across a
little book by British social historian David Elliston Allen called
"The Victorian Fern Craze: A History of Pteridomania."
"You read this and you just want the plants. It
started my passion and that book is why I'm a grower," Jones says.
She lived in an old house on Queen Anne at the time, Victorian enough to
be a perfect setting for indoor ferns, which proved to be the thin edge
of the wedge on Jones' slide into fulltime pteridomania (pteridology is
the branch of botany dealing with ferns). She describes it as being
sucked in by fern history and being spit out as a dedicated grower.
Victoriana is a natural for Jones, as the Victorians
were great collectors, and she grew up as a self-described pack rat.
Family trips to the dump meant coming home with more than they took. Now
her log home is surrounded by gargoyles, giant turtle shells salvaged
from the dump, and old grave stones from one of her always surprising
display gardens at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show. Jones also
loves the fact that the Victorians, in addition to compiling vast
collections, wrote everything down ("they weren't sidetracked by
television or the movies"). Jones has collected a library full of
wonderful accounts of ferns. With the help of these references, she is
able to figure out if she has bred some new kind of fern, or if the
Victorians already grew it and she can simply use the name they had
already given it.
How Jones went from children's theater to becoming an
international expert on ferns is in some part the story of horticulture,
in both the Northwest and around the globe. She joined the Los Angeles
Fern Society, which clearly says to its members, "You, too, can
grow ferns from spore," and she started doing just that. She went
to her first Washington Park Arboretum fern sale in 1975 and joined the
Arboretum unit that studied houseplants. At her very first meeting,
Jones volunteered to run the department so she had to learn quickly. She
researched fern literature in the bowels of the university's Suzzallo
library, which she describes as a "cornucopia of Victorian fern
literature," and wrote to England for sources of ferns and books
she couldn't dig up locally. By the late '70s Jones was growing ferns
for the Arboretum plant sales, unable to find commercial sources for the
many different ones she wanted to sell. Her new profession was cemented
with a trek to Sikkim in 1979 to collect ferns and a visit to England to
|The tree fern Dicksonia squarrosa thrives at the Fancy Fronds hoop house in Gold Bar, growing up to form a canopy over Judith Jones as she waters her wide selection of ferns.
Jones teamed up with local landscaper Torbin Barford,
and over the course of the 1980s she moved her ferns from the
15-by-24-foot glass house in her Queen Anne backyard to Barford's
greenhouses in Bothell. "I'd make more ferns, and he'd put up
another greenhouse," she laughs. She was in demand as a lecturer
and began to teach classes. When she showed slides of ferns, people
wanted to buy them.
"What is the point of education, if people can't
get hold of the plants?" she asked, causing her to switch her focus
to hardy ferns, nudged along by a mention in The New York Times, which
resulted in the creation of her first mail-order fern list. Now Fancy
Fronds Nursery in Gold Bar is an integral part of the network of small
nurseries around the Northwest that Jones describes as "so sharing;
the small nurseries stick together and help each other out."
|The Jones' log cabin is decorated inside and out with an assortment of gargoyles and found objects. A rusty old iron table top hangs on the front porch, with a squishy rubber gargoyle head peering out in greeting.
Jones lectures internationally for botanic gardens and
plant societies, including Chicago Botanic Garden, Van Dusen Gardens in
Vancouver, B.C., the Imperial College in London, and Harvard.
"It took awhile to move gardeners beyond
maidenhair and sword ferns, but once you expose people to the
incredible palette of ferns, they love it," she says.
Plants have become a family enterprise. Jones's daughter
Daphne just completed her degree in herbology and plans to pursue
naturopathic medicine. Her teenage son Felix helps in the greenhouse, as
well as working with tractor and chainsaw to clear elderberries and
junipers for new gardens around the Gold Bar property.
The Fancy Fronds catalog lists more than 100 different
ferns ("each cultivar is an individual," Jones says) and her
collection runs close to 600 taxa, the inventory for which is all in her
head. It is impossible to get Jones to name a few favorites; "it
would be easier to ask me what I don't like, I have so many
favorites," she declares. At the moment, Jones is working to
perfect a miniature golden-scaled male fern she plans to name
'Munchkin.' She carries a few ferns not available anywhere else, such as
Athyrium filix-femina 'Fancy Fronds,' a deciduous dwarf lady fern grown
from English stock that grows to a height of only 4 to 6 inches. Reading
the catalog is an education in itself, complete with fascinating names
and descriptions such as the Fish-Tail Crested Male Fern (Dryopteris
filix-mas 'Cristata Martindale') and the scaly Australian Tree Fern,
which grows to 15 feet high.
|The front porch of the cabin holds a still life of found and collected objects: hand-fired chimney pots from the Netherlands, old baskets, tools and "anything we can drag home," according to Jones.
Jones describes growing ferns as a little like raising
teenagers. "All you can do is provide light and water and hover,
and they do it all by themselves," she says.
Jones isn't likely to be cured of pteridomania anytime
soon. "There are 12,000 species in the world, depending on if
you're a lumper or a splitter," she explains. "And fern sex is
just so fascinating, really incredibly creative — they've had
millennia in which to perfect it."
Valerie Easton is a horticultural librarian and writes
about plants and gardens for Pacific Northwest magazine. Her e-mail
address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Jimi Lott is a Seattle Times staff