It’s not a cool alliteration I made up. Fern fever was a trendy phrase in the 1800s in the United Kingdom and America. A phrase that, in today’s form, as #FernFever would have millions of followers on Instagram. A phrase that someone would use to describe their latest hobby with a guilty giggle, much the same way people today describe their personality quirks with terms like OCD. And like selfies, the obsession broke all age, class and gender barriers. Much like selfies, it was also seen as a nuisance. The term was, after all, coined with a sense of worry over the society’s mindlessness, the way psychology experts write about Internet addiction today.
It started with a botanist named Nathaniel Ward who discovered that ferns, those wild plants with beautiful foliage found only in remote wilderness, could at last be grown indoors in a glass case like a terrarium. Fern collecting and ‘ferneries’ then became an obsessive preoccupation in Victorian England where every garden wanted a piece of fern. Men and women went fern hunting across England. Some took it as far as the tropical islands exporting new species of ferns back to Europe. Some smuggled them in because collectors paid an arm and a leg for exotic species in the ‘black market’. Some fell over cliffs trying to collect ‘rare’ wild specimens. Some ferns were driven out of existence into extinction. The craze eventually died down, but not before establishing ferns as one of the most common ornamental garden plant across the world.
Makes one wonder what is so fascinating about ferns? They have no flowers, no seeds, and some have no roots even! It’s hard to fathom that a pretty frond of leaves could seize our imagination at this scale. But you’ve got to admit, this humble proto-plant has character. As an essential element of a landscape, it defines its habitat single-handedly. Only other species that can compare and compete are gigantic trees – the redwood, cedar, pine or sal.
One could say, ferns define and adorn the Western Ghats more emphatically than any tree or bird.
‘On that same rifted dell, where many an ash
Twists its wild limbs beside the ferny rock,
Whose plumy ferns forever nod and drip
Sprayed by the waterfall. . . .’
Replace ‘ash’ with the Kino or Matti tree and William Cowper might have described the landscape of Kodagu. But it’s not only near waterfalls where you find ferns. The Western Ghats region hosts over 300 species of them, including the world’s smallest terrestrial fern. Some grow on mossy rocks, while some like the basket fern grow on tree trunks.
The basket fern, is one of the most fascinating and easy-to-spot ferns in Kodagu. Drynaria, as botanists call it, grows profusely on tree trunks and branches. The long feather-like leaves that seem to grow out of the host tree itself are hard to miss. What holds them there, is visible only on a careful second look. The fern has a second set of leaves – shorter, broader and closer to the tree – that arranges itself like a small basket (hence, basket fern), to support the longer leaves and to hold litter and debris as nourishment. The baskets also offer shelter to travelling ants, resting snails or even sniping pit vipers who need a hide to lie in wait for a doomed tree frog.
A basket fern holds a small ecosystem in itself. And this is just one of the 300-odd ferns in the Western Ghats. Fern hunting may or may not become fashionable again. (Do hobbies go in and out of fashion like the cuts of a suit?) But it’s exciting to imagine the avalanche of mysteries of the Western Ghats region that would come to light if we decided to go crazy over ferns now.