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.
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.
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.
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).