Inside the Morris Arboretum’s ‘jewel’

In 1899, amateur botanist John Morris and his sister Lydia built a “jewel” on the property of their summer estate, Compton.

This fernery, a glassed home for ferns, rimmed by a foundation of stone, perfectly tapped into the Victorian era fascination with the plants. Fascination, however, may be an understatement. Some say the Victorians were downright obsessed. The term pteridomania describes this fixation on ferns: Forms of the plant appeared on textiles, pottery, furniture, and even gravestones.

An article from an 1871 London publication states that fern mania began sweeping Britain to match a nationwide mood of somberness.

But the Morris siblings were not just dabbling in the trends of the day; both John and Lydia were serious about their hobby.

They hired the architectural firm of Hitchings & Co. to draw up blueprints for the fernery. A Japanese gardener and craftsmen designed and set the rocks in the interior of the structure. One thousand ferns were ordered from Birkenhead Nursery to populate the new structure.

Today, this throwback to the Victorian era still stands on the Morris’ old property, which is the present-day site of the Morris Arboretum.

While the fernery slowly fell into disrepair in the century after its initial construction, it was fully restored and reopened to the public in 1994 as the Dorrance H. Hamilton Fernery.

Today, there is literally nothing else in North America quite like it.


Photos by Steven Minicola

“In the world, I know of only a handful. This particular fernery, the Dorrance H. Hamilton Fernery, is the only restored freestanding fernery in North America,” says Shelley Dillard, propagator at the Arboretum who oversees the fernery. “What makes this one different from all the other ones is, if you’ll notice, there are no posts. … You really get a feeling of openness in this particular fernery that you don’t get in any of the other structures.”

The fernery is still a jewel of the Arboretum—and a uniquely warm respite during the cold months.

The fernery is heated to 63 degrees—though it does get warmer inside the glass walls during the middle of the day. Most visitors think it’s a tropical habitat with plants native to the Brazilian rainforest, Dillard says, but the fernery’s collection actually contains temperate plants that can be grown in climates like San Francisco, the Pacific Northwest, or England.

Most of the collection was put in place at the time of the massive renovation in 1994. Dillard and her team removed the plants before the renovation, and saved just a few pieces, including a pyrrosia, or felt fern. This was no easy task, since this fern is attached to a rock, so Dillard and her team cut it off and placed in large flats in peat moss. Dorrance Hamilton, the Arboretum board member who donated funds for the renovation, took care of the ferns in her greenhouse.

Once the renovations were complete, Dillard used floral wire to secure the fern back onto the rock. This fern is an epiphyte, which is a plant  without a root system that lives on detritus and rainwater, so in no time flat, the plant was again growing and thriving in the space.

Unlike other spaces at the Arboretum, the fernery is not curated, which means Dillard and her team of nine volunteers can remove ferns when they grow too wild, and add new ferns to the mix. It’s a delicate balance, she says, of grooming and letting the plants naturally populate areas inside the fernery. There are, for example, maidenhair ferns growing along one of the rock walls—an area where Dillard did not plant them.

“We let them grow how they’re going to grow,” she says. There are, however, a few rules to the fernery—the only plants inside are those that reproduce by spores (so no flowering plants such as begonias or orchids). And like the few other remaining fernerys in Scotland and England,  visitors step down into the Arboretum’s space; the fernery also has an overlook, a tunnel, a water feature, and a bridge. Fernerys are usually made out of the local stone, which, in this case, is Wissahickon schist.

Dillard has worked at the Arboretum since 1985, when she started as a volunteer. Today, she manages all the propagation and production, and runs the greenhouses and the nursery. The fernery is a small part of her job—but one she treasures.

“It’s the gem of the Arboretum,” says Dillard. “I love working in here. It’s just wonderful.”

Fernery 145