Article by Katherine Wagner-Reiss 

The Dorrance H. Hamilton Fernery. Photo by Paul Meyer.

Morris Arboretum is the perfect place to indulge in a little pteridomania: a mania for ferns!  

John T. Morris (the original owner of the Morris Estate, along with his sister, Lydia Morris) was a fern fan; this is not surprising as fern collecting was all the rage in Victorian England. Combining his Haverford College studies in engineering and his love of tropical plants, Morris designed a cutting-edge, eight-sided glass conservatory called the Palm House. Unfortunately, the first iteration of his greenhouse, heated with a firebox boiler, was destroyed by a fire in 1895, quite soon after its construction. The replacement glasshouse was completed in 1899; it was and still is a marvel, benefiting from the latest, award-winning winning ideas about greenhouses promulgated at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Morris filled it with over 500 fern specimens, ordered from one expert English gardener; he made sure to specify in his order that he would prefer to have no more than two ferns of any one species.

Of course, greenhouses require upkeep, and in 1994 a group spearheaded by Dorrance H. Hamilton matched a major National Endowment for the Humanities grant to redo the conservatory with up-to-date materials and climate control systems while remaining true to Morris’s architectural vision. Today it remains the only surviving freestanding Victorian fernery in the US. Here is a self-guided tour of the current fernery to whet your interest about the exotic ferns that are cultivated inside.

The Morris Arboretum Stumpery. Photo by Lynn Weaver.

Stumperies are another Victorian innovation, and the Arboretum’s Hardy Fern Garden/Stumpery is located just across from the Fernery entrance. Stumperies use tree stumps as a background for ferns, mosses, and other plants that will enjoy the shade and various moist and dry microclimates that they provide. The Stumpery plantings include several native ferns, all conveniently labeled for identification. One example is Dryopteris carthusiana (spinulose wood fern), whose genus name contains the same root word as pteridomania: the Greek word dryas means “oak” and the Greek word pteris means “fern,” in reference to the natural oak forest habitat of some species in the genus. Another species in the Stumpery is Comptonia peregrina, commonly called sweetfern or sweet-fern. Notice that the hyphen in sweet-fern is a botanical convention in writing common names that indicates “fern” is not taxonomically correct: this plant is not a true fern. It is, however, a delightful native perennial with sweet-smelling foliage. The stumps provide four-season interest, as does Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas fern), one of the only evergreen native ferns of the Northeast. Of course, stumps decay, adding another level of interest to a stumpery, and eventually requiring new stumps to be placed.

On your next visit to Morris Arboretum, why not indulge in a little fern fever? The Fernery and Stumpery are strategically located opposite one another for your enjoyment in any season.


The English fern nursery catalogue from which all ferns for the 1899 fernery were ordered.The English fern nursery catalogue from which all ferns for the 1899 fernery were ordered. Photo from the R. Gutkowski Slide Collection.
Comptonia peregrina (sweet-fern) growing in the Stumpery.Comptonia peregrina (sweet-fern) growing in the Stumpery. Photo by Katherine Wagner-Reiss.
Cyrtomium falcatum ‘Rochfordianum’ (Rochford’s holly fern) in the Stumpery.Cyrtomium falcatum ‘Rochfordianum’ (Rochford’s holly fern) in the Stumpery. Photo by Katherine Wagner-Reiss.
Katherine has her Certificate in Botany from the New York Botanical Garden and is a botanical tour guide and free-lance writer. You can contact her with comments or requests for photos at


Our very own Jason Lubar (Associate Director of Urban Forestry, Morris Arboretum) is featured on the latest episode of the Plant A Trillion Trees podcast. He discusses the tornados that have ravaged our Mid-Atlantic Region and the aftercare of trees from tornado and derecho damage.

Plant A Trillion Trees is a podcast dedicated to encouraging tree planting and proper tree care for our urban forest which includes neighborhoods, parks, and other open spaces. The show is hosted by Eva Monheim and Hal Rosner, certified arborists through the International Society of Arboriculture.





Before and After example




The Penn Campus Arboretum is home to over 6,500 trees and 240 species in West Philadelphia. Keeping the trees alive and thriving in an urban setting is an ongoing task for Penn’s Facilities & Real Estate Services (FRES) and Morris Arboretum’s Urban Forestry team who partner to manage and improve Penn’s green infrastructure. Towards this goal, a recent project involved improving the soil conditions around seven large London planetrees, each approximately 85 years old, which are part of an allée or line of trees along River Fields Drive.

These important Philadelphia heritage trees were being negatively impacted from unsanctioned parking on the grassy spaces between each tree resulting in the soil being extremely compacted, which was harming the trees’ structural and biological root health. Roots are the life blood of trees, absorbing and transporting vital water and minerals to the tree and anchoring/stabilizing them in the ground. Because of the impact from car-related compaction to the soil and roots, the overall longevity of these trees was being threatened. 

To ensure the biological health and longevity of these magnificent London planetrees, FRES, with the help of the Urban Forestry team, proposed that the degraded soil be decompacted and enriched with leaf compost, and a low barrier fence be installed so that no further parking could occur between the trees. As a result of this FRES-funded project, the trees are well on their way to surviving another 85 years.


Article and photos by Katherine Wagner-Reiss 

Carya ovata shaggy bark, a roosting place for bats and butterflies.


Carya ovata (shagbark hickory) is a large deciduous tree that is easy to identify all year round because of its eye-catching shaggy mature bark. In the fall, shagbark hickory is also notable for its warm golden-brown leaves and sizable edible nuts. It is one of the five hickory species native to Pennsylvania. 

The genus name Carya is the Greek name for walnut, and in Greek mythology Laconian princess Carya had a love affair with the god Dionysus; after her death, he memorialized her by changing her into a fruitful walnut tree.  

The specific epithet ovata means egg-shaped, referring to the nut, and the common name hickory was adapted from the Virginia Algonquian word pawcohiccora, referring to a staple food of pounded hickory nuts and water. From 1773–1777 William Bartram, a foremost Philadelphian naturalist, travelled the east coast south of Pennsylvania and described seeing one hundred bushels of shagbark hickory nuts stored at just a single Native American family home. The hickory wood itself was valued as a fuel and for bow-making.

 Here are some fun hickory-related experiences to enjoy this autumn: 

  • Find some shagbark hickories and appreciate the value of shaggy bark as a home or hiding place for wildlife: butterflies, caterpillars, and bats all benefit from the protection provided by the curling bark. 
  • Train your mind’s eye to identify the distinctive color of fall shagbark hickory leaves; unlike the maples, which turn lemon yellow, these leaves are a rich golden mustard-brown yellow. Once you become attuned to this color, you will be able to suspect a hickory, even from afar.  
  • Look for the edible nuts! Wildlife—including squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, black bears, fox, mallards, wood ducks, bobwhites, and wild turkeys—may beat you to them. 
  • Try grilling with hickory charcoal.
  • If you have a special child in your life, or if you’d just like a bit of coloring fun yourself, check out these free online coloring pages of shagbark hickory and other trees. If you don’t want to waste paper, they can be colored directly online! 
Carya ovata oval nuts emerging from dehiscent oval husks. Carya ovata oval nuts emerging from dehiscent oval husks.
Carya ovata dark mustard-colored autumn leaves.
 Dark mustard-colored autumn leaves of Carya ovata
Carya ovata easily found downhill from the Two Lines stainless steel sculpture (arrowed).


And some hickory trivia...

  • Andrew Jackson was named Old Hickory because he was as tough as their wood.
  • Lancaster, PA was initially called Hickory Town before all the hickories were cut down.  
  • Carya ovata is so closely related to the pecan, Carya illinoinensis, that the two trees can hybridize naturally, and their hybrid nuts are called hicans! 

When you visit Morris Arboretum, you can see ten labeled shagbark hickories, some of which were original to the Morris estate and accessioned in 1932. (They can live and bear fruit for 300 years.) Don’t be surprised if some of the younger trees have smooth bark—the shagginess develops later. Find their locations at the Arboretum's Collection Connection.  


Katherine has her Certificate in Botany from the New York Botanical Garden and is a botanical tour guide and free-lance writer. You can contact her with comments or requests for photos at