Cover Story Plant Life Northwest Living Sunday Punch

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.

JUDITH 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.

Jones 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.

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.
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 meet growers.

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.

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.
"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."

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 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.
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.

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 Jimi Lott is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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