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Frond Memories

In Philly, the Morris Arboretum Fernery Recalls a Greener Age

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 18, 2004; Page C02

Philadelphia's Fairmount Park runs through the city much as Rock Creek Park traverses Washington. At its source, the park takes in an area well known to Philly lovers, including the Museum of Art and the historic boathouse row along the Schuylkill River.

At the other end of this verdant rainbow is another pot of gold: the Morris Arboretum. Established as a private estate in the 1880s, the 92-acre horticultural haven endured a few decades of neglect to come back in recent years as an even richer living museum of shrubs, shade trees and conifers from North America and east Asia.


The Morris Arboretum's rare-fern collection is kept at 58 degrees year-round. (Paul W. Meyer - -Morris Arboretum)

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Its original owners, industrialist John Morris and his sister, Lydia, called it Compton and turned a once rolling but bare pasture into a private park of picturesque woodland, formal garden terraces and various handsome pavilions, bridges and other structures clad in the brilliant mica-flecked local stone.

Today, anyone with $8 in his pocket can enjoy the place, which is now run by the University of Pennsylvania. In early April, when daffodils create golden pools of color in the lower meadows and magnolias bloom, the arboretum will be crammed with spring-starved visitors.

But now, in its quiet winter form, large hollies, hemlocks and cedars provide greenery against the groves of big deciduous plants, each with its own distinctive outline and traceries. Their shadows fall long and blue on the snowy ground, and the patterns are contorted by the hills and hollows that define this land.

It is a scene savored by Paul Meyer, the arboretum director. "Winter," he declares, "is my favorite season."

There is another reason to like the Morris Arboretum at this time of year. Ten years ago, the arboretum opened the restored fernery, an 1899 conservatory John Morris built to hold a collection of rare, exotic and tender ferns. Such places were all the rage in the Victorian age, a time when technology and exploration stirred great interest in the natural world and its origins.

People of more modest means would have collected these ferns in little terrariums or gone to botanic gardens to view these tropical wonders, related to but different from the hardy ferns that grow outdoors (sometimes wildly different, as with the New Zealand tree fern or the staghorn fern). Other public conservatories still have fern collections, but Philadelphia's is the only surviving Victorian fernery in North America, according to Meyer. Books of the day listed the features every gentleman's fernery should have -- a waterfall, a grotto, a bridge, etc. -- and Morris's has them all.

It is also sunken into the ground, requiring you to descend seven stone steps to a landing, where you behold this Aladdin's cave. Its rocks are brimming with hundreds of ferns, some big and well rooted in deep soil, others tiny and living in the crevices of their miniature worlds. The rocks, called Wissahickon schist, after the stream running through the arboretum, sparkle with mica.

But this is a cave in light. A domed glass roof allows the light to pour in. Morris, who owned an ironworks, designed the roof -- bell-shaped in profile -- to avoid the need for interior columns that would impede an already cozy environment.


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