Warm Up with a Visit to the Fernery

Some people travel to the Caribbean every year to escape the chill. I make a special trip to the fernery at the Morris Arboretum. Built in 1899 by John T. Morris to house a collection of ferns from around the world, the Dorrance H. Hamilton Fernery is an urban oasis to be enjoyed all year long, but especially in the dead of winter.

To find the fernery, take a short walk from the visitor center and through the sleeping rose garden. You’ll see what looks like a Victorian spacecraft nestled into the sloping landscape below. The delicate glass roof and walls sit upon a sturdy foundation of stone. It’s an elegant curiosity that beckons you to step inside and explore another world.

Open the double doors of the fernery and you immediately pass from winter into summer; from a monochrome world to a thousand shades of green. The thick, humid air hits you first. If you have dry skin, you’ll feel good and want to linger. Sunlight streams in through the glass dome overhead, enticing you to unzip your winter coat and loosen your scarf. Close your eyes for a moment and listen for the trickle of a waterfall cascading over stone into a small coy pond. Now look around and take in the lush greenery you’d expect to see in the tropics. Welcome to paradise.

Along the circular pathway you’ll pass a collection of more than 200 different varieties of ferns. Many are from Asia and Australia, but some, like certain species of Maidenhair fern, are native to our region and can do well in your garden.

Absent of showy flowers and bold colors, there is still much to be seen if you look closely. New fronds unfurl like fiddleheads. The undersides of some fronds are dotted with sori, collections of sporangia each containing hundreds of spore that can result in new plants. And the shapes and sizes of foliage seem endless, from the giant Birds-nest fern to the diminutive Blue fern.

It’s no surprise that the fernery is a hit with children. The damp, stone tunnel seems like a secret hideaway and it’s not hard to imagine a small dinosaur running between the two tree ferns that look straight out of Jurassic Park. Indeed much larger tree ferns thrived 350 million years ago, before the first dinosaurs walked the earth. So bring your little dinosaur-lovers with you and inspire their appreciation for the natural world.

Besides the sheer beauty of the fernery, I love it for the serenity it offers when you take a few minutes to stand still and soak it in. Resist the urge to capture every detail with your camera. Instead capture the memory in your mind. You’ll want to hold onto it when you have to zip up your coat and walk outside the warmth of the glass oasis.

How to Care for Ferns at Home

Ferns are easy to grow. Humidity is the key. Follow these tips to keep your ferns healthy:

  • Water consistently to keep the soil moist but not saturated.
  • Houses are dry. Add moisture to the air with a humidifier or place a tray filled with gravel and water under your potted plants (just be sure the pots can drain and are not sitting in water).
  • Keep ferns in the bathroom.
  • Mist the foliage.
  • Provide indirect, low-light by placing ferns in north-facing windows or east-facing windows during winter months.
  • Create a terrarium or use a cloche to replicate the humid environment of the fernery on a small scale.


You can learn more about some of the ferns from the plant markers or by checking out this Self-guided Tour. Visit the arboretum website to read about the fascinating history of the fernery, including the efforts Lydia T. Morris made to preserve it during World War I.



By Cindy Kelly for the Morris Arboretum blog
January 25, 2016