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Gardening Answers Knowledgebase


Knowledgebase record #54


Encyclopedia of Garden Ferns by Sue Olsen, 2007

Reviewed by: Brian Thompson
Review date: 2007-10-01

Wow! This may be the crown jewel of an excellent assembly of local books for this year. If you are not a fan of ferns, Sue Olsen's infectious but very informative style will convert you. While addressing a global audience, the Encyclopedia of Garden Ferns is one of the very select treasures of Pacific Northwest garden writing and must not be missed, even if you garden on a sunny, dusty slope. The descriptions, photographs (all by the author), and cultural details are all top notch, and infused with that added extra insight only available from a writer who thoroughly knows her subject.

In addition to the expected information on cultivation and propagation, Olsen covers the natural history and taxonomy of these fascinating plants, making it of interest to more than just gardeners. The many appendices are excellent, too, with the most intriguing a collection of lists of favorite species by a global who's who of fern specialists, whose gardens range from hardiness zones 4 to 11.

But the heart of the book is the tour of "Ferns from Around the World". At first glance, this resembles many A-Z listings, but there are some key enhancements not often found. Common names are listed, but these are real common names, not made up to fill a slot. The meanings of both the genus and specific epithet are given, the latter particularly useful with ferns. The description is thorough without the mind-numbing detail of many botanic writings. And the photographs are superlative, with almost all taken by the author.

This is all very good, but Olsen is at her best in the "Culture and Comments" sections. This is where you can tell what she knows is from first-hand experience, and shows of her skills as a writer, too. "Most polystichums are considered horticulturally hardy (which means temperate rather than "easy" as in some interpretations)."

Her stories will resonate with any gardener. "When my lone plant is threatened with sweeping arctic freezes, I cover it with horticultural gauze. My last carefully spread protective blanket for such nurturing was carried away by a presumably needy crow and found the following morning in the upper limbs of a neighbor's tree. The fern survived." And at carefully spaced moments, shares her passion. "This is THE species that inspired my interest in cultivation, propagation, and immersion in the wonderful world of ferns". This last sentence is in praise of Dryopteris erythrosora, the Autumn fern.

While perhaps not for the beginning gardener, I believe this book is well within the reach of anyone who has seriously embraced the craft. If that describes you, this is a must for your home library.

Excerpted from the Fall 2007 and Summer 2012 Arboretum Bulletin.


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