Plum mountain

Blame it on the ferns!

April 28, 2011 · Leave a Comment

There are certain times of day and certain lights when even I, an experienced plant collector, stop in my tracks and gaze in wonder. That magical space, when a garden somehow touches a nerve, lies at the heart of contemplative gardening. For me, both nature and the garden are a kind of escape from the humdrum, and a discovery of new things. But also I feel as though they are paths that lead ultimately to one’s own heart.

Horticulture was not my first career. In fact, I never anticipated spending the past three decades at a public garden. My schooling was in classics and Ancient Chinese. I was captivated by the poetry of Tu Fu, Wang Wei and the lives of gentlemen who lived in the Tang and Sung dynasties.

I studied Chinese at the University of Colorado in Boulder, at Middlebury College and finally at Cornell. The spring of 1974 must have been especially refulgent in Ithaca. After the fierce Upstate New York winter, the gradual warming and the misty skies of April, with diffused sunlight and more and more flowers everywhere, completely distracted me from my studies. I found myself walking out of my way through neighborhoods just to see flowers, and taking more and more field trips to nearby falls and parks. One day I noticed a path that seemed to lead into a woodlot. I began walking along a stream bed, where the shrubs and trees were gauzed with green buds and there were masses of white trilliums showing up in the woods, as well as hepatica, banks covered with yellow trout lilies and other entrancing wildflowers. I don’t know if I kept walking for an hour or three or more: I was completely captivated by the hardwood forest in early season glory, with birds chirping everywhere and spring pulsing in everything around me, and in my ears and in my heart.

A cliff loomed up ahead (I love cliffs!), and as I approached I noticed some green lacework in the crevices (what could it be?). As I came closer, I saw for the first time “in the chlorophyll” (since ferns don’t have flesh) the maidenheadspleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes), an incredibly delicate fern with bright Irish green pinnules and black stems forming slightly asymmetrical starfish-like patterns along the crevices. Shazam! I was transfixed–gazing at the perfect,delicate, living tracery on that gaunt, bleak cliff. That perfection of form in a gorgeous space is, for me, the heart of what I love in nature and seek to recreate in a garden.

Shortly thereafter I quit the University. I loved (and still love) classics and books, but in that moment of gazing at that perfect fern in its perfect setting, I realized my heart was really in nature and gardening. I began to pursue avenues that would lead to a livelihood, and ultimately to my career in public horticulture.The reality of plant, rock and sky was just too powerful. I suppose it was those ferns’ doing.

panayoti kelaidisPanayoti Kelaidis is Senior Curator and Director of Outreach at the Denver Botanic Gardens in Denver, Colorado.  He shares his 50 years of expertise in plants and plant-hunting both at the DBG and on occasional plant-hunting expeditions to many parts of the globe.  You can read his blog at:

For some photographs of the type of fern that changed Panayoti’s life, please go to

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