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A New Classic for Fern Fanciers

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Oh, my aching muscles...

Reviewed by Karen Preuss

It’s certainly been a year for new books by Seattle authors. We wrap up the list with Sue Olsen’s wonderful new Encyclopedia of Garden Ferns, a gem among gems.

I don’t know a lot about ferns. I know that they’re mostly shade lovers, something I have precious little of on my south-facing patio. I know that if you hit the farmer’s markets on the coast of Maine at just the right time in the spring, you can buy fiddleheads that are yummy when sautéed in a little garlic, butter and a splash of white wine.

I know that besides Sue Olsen,—Richie Steffen, Sylvia Duryea, and the other members of the Hardy Fern Foundation—really know their stuff and can direct you to all kinds of fascinating ferns at their annual fern sale. (I also know that most of the Miller Library staff will disappear periodically throughout the Friday of the sale, and you can find them browsing and buying their way through fern heaven over in NHS Hall!)

So basically, I opened up my copy of the Encyclopedia of Garden Ferns being able to recognize a maidenhair and a hart’s tongue fern specifically, and I know a fern in general when I see it, but that’s about it.

Holy cow! Olsen includes more than 960 ferns in her book, the most comprehensive reference work on ferns since Hoshizaki’s and Moran’s The Fern Grower’s Manual (also by Timber Press, revised edition published in 2001).

As an amateur, however, when comparing the two volumes side by side, I clearly prefer Olsen’s to the earlier publication. Why? Well, first of all, the 700 photographs, all taken by the author (with a few exceptions, such as the photo of Sue herself standing underneath a Marattia in New Zealand, photographed by Harry Olsen). Can I go on about the photography for just a moment? The detail the author has captured in her photographs is exceptional, and her artistry is stunning. See how she has captured the sunlight on the photograph of an Osmunda regalis (page 24), and you’ll see what I mean.

In her preface, Olsen states her goals for this volume are “to present the ferns by illustration, information, and example so that they bring to you what I have sought for myself in doing research over the past forty years, and that is explicit help on identification along with cultivation guidelines, enriched where possible with anecdotal insights.”

Paging through the Encyclopedia of Garden Ferns, it’s obvious that Olsen has attained her goals. This well-organized book includes comprehensive chapters on cultivating and propagating ferns, along with a brief chapter on fern structure and basic diagnostics. Clear line drawings by Richie Steffen illustrate the life cycle of ferns and fern parts and frond divisions.

The balance of the book encompasses the “encyclopedia” part of the title. Nearly 1,000 ferns, arranged alphabetically by genus, are included here. Olsen first provides information about each genus, including its history and etymology. She then lists species within the genus, including descriptions, range and habitat, culture, and (my favorite part) comments.

With more than forty years experience studying, propagating, and writing about ferns, Olsen has a wealth of personal experience that she willingly shares with the reader. It is just this combination of factual research blended with personal anecdotes and observations that makes this such a valuable book for anyone interested in growing ferns.

Another stroke of genius is Appendix 4: Favorite Ferns for Sites Around the World. Arranged by USDA zones, Olsen appealed to fern experts across North America, as well as Australia, Germany, and England, for their top twenty favorite ferns. Olsen’s own personal favorites are included in Zone 8 (not to mention scattered throughout the book).

If you’re a fern expert, this is an essential purchase for your home library. If you’re a fern enthusiast who wants to learn more, this is the book for you, too. The information included in the Encyclopedia of Garden Ferns is both concise and comprehensive, and extremely readable. And can I just say, I had NO IDEA that equisetums are true ferns! Amazing.  NWGN

Karen Preuss was the Library Manager of the Elisabeth C. Miller Library at the University of Washington Botanic Gardens from 2005 to 2007. She relocated to New York City in August.

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