The air is cool and filled with the sound of a waterfall. Soon you are mesmerized by this primal environment. The rocks rise up close to the path, presenting the ferns at eye level and in close quarters, ready for inspection. There isn't a flower in sight; ferns predate flowering plants and reproduce by spores, like mushrooms. Instead the scene is dominated by the amazing variety of fern sizes, textures, shades of green and even the spore patterns on the underside of the fronds. There are tree ferns, various species of maidenhair ferns, tender versions of holly and hart's-tongue ferns, and one whose fleshy rhizomes rise from a froth of moss. "Feel it," says Meyer. It is as soft and giving as a stuffed toy. This gives it its common name: the teddy bear fern.
At the back of the dark grotto, maidenhair ferns erupt from the wall like bunches of grapes. Another, the bean fern, has waves of waxy, elongated leaves resembling bean pods.
The Morris Arboretum's rare-fern collection is kept at 58 degrees year-round.
(Paul W. Meyer - -Morris Arboretum)
Just as they informed and entertained curious Victorians, the ferns today draw us to their stories of evolution and survival. The bean fern's thick leaf surfaces suggest it would do well in a spot that dries out occasionally, Meyer says, while a far more delicate fern nearby hides in the shadows, vampirelike, knowing that the sun's rays would do it in.
A toy dinosaur, perched on a rock, reminds visitors that ferns were present in the time of those creatures. Much of the world's oil derives from primal jungles of ferns.
But ferns, unlike dinosaurs, are survivors, something evident in this fernery, where different species claim their own spaces like seals on a beach.
Meyer said arboretum officials decided to avoid filling the fernery with full-bore tropical species that would have required winter nighttime temperatures to remain above 70 degrees, a feat that would have had the boilers gobbling up dollars in energy costs. The use of ferns from slightly cooler zones allows a more modest setting of 58 degrees.
Shelley Dillard, a plant propagator who looks after the ferns, said the plants sat in the replanted fernery for about four years before deciding they liked the place. Since then, they have been expanding, wandering and growing madly.
At this time of year, many of the vegetative inmates are set to party, growing fronds and producing spores and generally awakening to thrive and multiply. "February is spring in here, that's when things begin to crank," says Dillard.
This renewal might be seen as a metaphor for the arboretum itself. When Meyer came here in 1975, he found a "sleepy, somewhat tattered" estate then four decades under the university's ownership. By then the Morrises' Gothic mansion had been demolished, Lydia Morris's formal gardens were little more than ghosts, and various outbuildings were in a dire state. The fernery was creaking along with a utilitarian roof quickly erected in the 1950s.
But with an increased passion for historic preservation and the emergence of a new gilded age for gardening in America, the arboretum has drawn a loyal following. The fernery was restored in 1994 with $1.2 million donated by Philadelphia philanthropist Dorrance H. Hamilton.
As John Morris got his fernery, his sister built another fixture in the mannered Victorian landscape, a hermitage. On the outside a simple log cabin, inside it was decorated with antiques and was a favored venue for tea parties. It, too, has been restored.
But it is the conservatory that draws me now. In July, even with shade cloth, the fernery may become too hot to enjoy. Now it is a sanctuary against the coldest part of the year, a time-warp cocoon of 19th-century indulgence. The ferns reach out to me, and I wonder if it's time to update that old license plate motto to: "You've got a Frond in Pennsylvania."
GETTING THERE: The Morris Arboretum is about 165 miles from D.C., in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia. Take I-95 north to I-476 north to the Germantown Pike exit. Exit onto Chemical Road to Germantown Pike east toward Philadelphia. Once in the city, turn left onto Northwestern Avenue. The arboretum entrance is a quarter-mile on the right.
WHAT TO DO: Allow half a day to visit the fernery and arboretum grounds, which are open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Admission is $8. Info: 215-247-5777, www.upenn.edu/arboretum.
Hikers will find the trail head of Fairmount Park a quarter-mile away. The trail leads 12 miles to downtown Philly. Other attractions include Wyck, a historic house noted for its old-rose garden (215-848-1690, www.wyck.org; blooming late May into June); Chanticleer, a "pleasure garden" in Wayne, Pa., about 40 minutes away (610-687-4163, www.chanticleergarden.org); and Valley Forge National Historical Park, about a 30-minute drive west (610-783-1077, www.nps.gov/vafo).
STAYING THERE : There are several hotels and B&Bs nearby, including a Marriott and Springhill Suites in Plymouth Meeting. Chestnut Hill Hotel (8229 Germantown Ave., 800-628-9744 , www.chestnuthillhotel.com) is a historic inn in the heart of Philly's Chestnut Hill neighborhood; rates from $129. At the Anam Cara B&B (52 Wooddale Ave., 215-242-4327, www.anamcara-bandb.com), guest rooms start at $85.
INFO: Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau, 215-636-3300, www.pcvb.org.