Boston Fern…A Tale of Three Cities

13 May

Nephrolepis exaltata


The weekly Friday field trip got swatted down by waiting for the nice repair man in my kitchen as I write. So I’ll back the camera up to a fun green Wednesday meeting with the Broward Co. Native Plant Society at the Secret Woods Nature Center in Ft. Lauderdale.

A great part of “botanizing farther south” is more ferns.   A dominant species at Secret Woods is Boston Fern, not that it is rare up here in Palm Beach County.    But why is it called Boston Fern?  (Be patient, we are getting to that.)  Boston Fern was once a huge single-species industry, interestingly dating back to the turn of the 20th Century orgy of unfettered exotic plant introductions.     Sort of ironic that a pillar of the early Florida nursery industry was a native.    I grew up with a big one hanging from the fireplace mantle.

Nephrolepis exaltata 1

Today’s pictures by John Bradford

In 1897 the proactive Soar Brothers, John and Francis, started a plant nursery in Miami following the arrival of the Flagler RR in 1896.  Population of Miami:  50.

Six years later, naturalist Charles Torrey Simpson moved there from Washington DC, having lived in Bradenton previously.   Simpson had about as wild and diversified life as humanly possible:  marching to the sea with Sherman, sailing the seven seas in the Navy, mining coal, as “Charley Carpenter,” befriending horticultural icon Pliny Reasoner (whose mother disapproved of the friendship), conducting an extra-marital affair that bit him deservedly in the butt, serving on a sheriff’s posse catching bad guys, farming in Nebraska, working at the Smithsonian as a malacologist, and THEN becoming a founding father of Miami horticulture and Everglades conservation.   (A retirement hobby.)   Before enduring the 1926 Miami hurricane, and being robbed.

Nephrolepis exaltata 3

The leaf dots are the “sori” where spores form.

In 1903 the Soar Brothers, Simpson, and friends took a grueling multiday field trip to what was then called Paradise Key (now Royal Palm State Park).    They brought back three items of note:  royal palms, Boston ferns, and a stinking deceased rattlesnake.    The plants made it into cultivation.  Lugging the awful toxic snake on his sweaty back took the blame for making John Soar dangerously ill.    He survived, and the Soars may have been the first growers to popularize Boston Fern.

Nephrolepis exaltata 2

Now a brief space and time warp…to 1912.    Frank Ustler worked for a greenhouse in Massachusetts growing Boston Ferns (originally from the Soars?).   Ustler figured tropical ferns to grow more cheaply in Florida than in Massachusetts, and came to Orlando for a try.  It worked.  After hassles raising venture capital,   Ustler took over an abandoned pineapple shed and launched a Boston Fern industry as well as a family dynasty, Ustler Brothers Nursery.  Of courses, as the years went by,  Apopka branched into additional ferns, and then all manner of foliage as well as vegetables.  With his brothers, the nursery moved in 1917 to Apopka, which became dubbed “Fern City.”    Joining the menu later was the non-native Leatherleaf Fern, according to contradictory legends discovered by local growers as either packing material in orchids, or as a houseplant at a florist’s.    In any case, dominated by these two ferns, one native and one not, “Fern City” was shipping a million ferns a year in 1927, including probably the one on my mother’s fireplace mantle.

Note.  Several similar Nephrolepis  ferns cultivated and wild in Florida are related to Boston Fern.    Boston Fern is easy to distinguish.  Look at the bases of the leaf stalks.   BF is having a “bad hair day” with light tan monotone scales (hairs) sticking out at rakish angles.   The similar invasive exotic Asian Sword Fern has its scales with a dark center, and pressed flat up against the leaf stalk.    Also common and an invasive exotic, the Tuberous Sword Fern is the only one with rounded leaflet tips (not pointed) and underground tubers.  Giant Sword Fern, generally regarded as native, has its leaflets on distinctive little stalks.  An unusual garden escape around Miami, Scaly Swordfern, has coarsely  irregular leaf margins (in all the others the margins are nearly smooth, or have tiny serrations).

Nephrolepis exaltata 4

Bad hair day in Boston

Nephrolepis multiflora scales

Scales on invasive exotic Asian Sword Fern – dark centers, mostly pressed to the stalk


The leaflet bases on Giant Sword Fern, probably native, have little stalks.   The cultivated Macho Fern is derived from this species.


Posted by on May 13, 2016 in Uncategorized


14 responses to “Boston Fern…A Tale of Three Cities

  1. Janis Riley

    May 13, 2016 at 4:29 pm

    Entertaining and informative …as usual♡
    Of course it’s always comforting to read about a plant I recognize and own even….Not that there’s anything wrong with learning about what I seldom come across….Anyway..Thanks.

    • George Rogers

      May 13, 2016 at 5:01 pm

      Well, in education classes they say to stay at the edge of everyone’s comfort zone. Not outside it. I always find it more fun to learn something new about a plant I see every day…than to learn a rare or distant plant I’ll never see again 🙂

  2. theshrubqueen

    May 13, 2016 at 6:46 pm

    I love this and will share it, I do have a question. I have been chastised for having invasive ferns by the NPS folks because (I apologize here) my ferns have balls.?!They also have the bad hair above. I enjoy these ferns and continue to move them around the garden. Any thoughts?

    • George Rogers

      May 13, 2016 at 8:25 pm

      Wellllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll, If Boston, they have the bad hair with one-tone scales and pointy tips. If Tuberous Sword, rounded tips and two toned scales.

      • theshrubqueen

        May 13, 2016 at 10:32 pm

        Tuberous has the balls then? I will have to look at the ferns, I may have both.

  3. theshrubqueen

    May 13, 2016 at 6:47 pm

    Reblogged this on The Shrub Queen and commented:
    My favorite botanical author sharing his thoughts on our native ferns

  4. George Rogers

    May 13, 2016 at 10:37 pm

    Right–and, yes, could be mixed. I’ve seen it.

  5. Laure Hristov

    May 14, 2016 at 9:21 am

    I love to hear about the original botanists and growers. Did you get that info from a particular book? Would love to read it. I read a very entertaining book called “The Brother Gardeners” by Andrea Wulf a little bit of storytelling and truth.

    • George Rogers

      May 14, 2016 at 9:40 am

      Hi Laure, Unfortunately not from a single source, but scitter-scattered threads However, there is a great biography of Simpson, “Florida’s Pioneer Naturalist” by Elizabeth Rothra. A hard-to-find book containing a lot of lost old history of Agriculture (including the Apopka foliage/veggie/industry) is “Countdown for Agriculture” by Henry Swanson. Will take a peek at the Brother Gardeners, thanks.

  6. hope

    May 15, 2016 at 9:30 am

    Might it be possible to post (or post a link to) a side by side picture comparison of the native v. exotic Nephrolepis, with key differentiating features visible (sori, scales, etc.) for those of us who are more visual learners, and, who, like the shrub queen might be inadvertently hosting both species or may encounter either in our local field excursions here in hyper developed/disturbed Florida?

    • George Rogers

      May 15, 2016 at 10:21 am

      Hope…here are a couple items that might help some. For a very good key there is this, although it is not exactly visual (there are illustrations however). The UF Atlas of FL Vascular plants (just Google ISB: Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants) has photos, but not really comparatively presented…hard to use.

      Here is a little verbal key:

      1. Leaflet tips rounded; plant has tubers…Tuberous Sword Fern (N. cordifolia) invasive exotic, very common in gardens, and on the loose, likes palm boots

      1. Leaflet tips mostly pointed; tubers absent…2

      2. Leaflets on a short stalk…Giant Sword Fern (N. biserrata), debatably (probably) native. Macho Fern is a cultivar of this. Seen in wild areas, but not that much. Macho Fern is common in cultivation.

      2. Leaflets not on a short stalk (the sit directly on the main stalk)…3

      3. Scales light tan, monochrome, sticking out…Boston Fern (N. exaltata)

      3. Scales with black center and tan rim, mostly pressed to the stalk…Asian Sword Fern (N. brownii) invasive exotic, very common

      I’ll add to the post a couple potentially useful photos.

      Also present locally is Fishtail Fern, N. falcata, but it is easy to spot because the leaflets are usually split into a Y like a fishtail.

      • hope

        July 4, 2017 at 8:43 am

        Thank you so much George…I’ve printed the key to take to the field with me. (Apologies for my belated “Thank You note”…for some reason I was only “notified” of your reply today when another reader, “Beth” posted her note.)

        Treasure Coast Natives is the tastiest treat in my email box – I race right to it, savor and devour it before reading any other emails. Thank you and John so much for generously sharing your vast knowledge of native flora, your fresh observations, beautiful photographs, and curious speculations….allowing us all to vicariously learn and explore with you, inviting us, likewise, to more closely observe and consider the native species and ecosystems in our own “back yards.”

        You can’t imagine how much all of us old “students” appreciate Treasure Coast Natives, as the wonderful virtual “best teacher ever” that makes “house calls.” Thanks again.

  7. beth

    July 3, 2017 at 11:38 am

    Thank you, George and John! : – )

  8. George Rogers

    July 5, 2017 at 6:45 pm

    Thank you so much Hope…made our day! Sometimes when you type all this up and hit “post” you wonder if anyone sees it. So THANK YOU!


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