THE Archbishop John Ireland used to pray in my kitchen — or so the neighbors say. Long before it was my attic apartment, this space was reportedly his home chapel in St. Paul, Minn.
A giant of American Catholicism in the early 20th century, Archbishop Ireland gave the Twin Cities a pair of monumental churches, the Basilica of St. Mary and the Cathedral of Saint Paul. He left me something humbler: a third-floor walk-up with sloping bead board ceilings and dormer windows.
These cubbies, carved into the wainscoting, look as if they were meant to display something. But what? A domed canary cage? A bust of St. Polycarp, patron saint of earache sufferers?
The other day, I experienced something like an epiphany. What the kitchen needed was a hanging fern.
A few decades ago, the plant to buy would have been obvious: a Boston fern. Anyone would recognize Nephrolepis exaltata. It’s the ferny-looking fern — the one with the long, shaggy ruffles of greenery, cascading like a fondue fountain.
The Boston fern is not without its merits, noted Tom Stuart, proprietor of the Hardy Fern Library, an online taxonomical guide.
“There’s almost no way to kill a Boston fern,” Mr. Stuart said from his home in Carmel, N.Y. “They really do tolerate drought and neglect.” Mr. Stuart’s Boston fern is now old enough to buy him a drink.
But the Boston fern felt too common, tainted by its association with podiatrists’ offices and food-court planters. Fortunately, snobbishness has a long, proud tradition in fern collecting. In his 1856 book, “Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste,” Shirley Hibberd described the rarefied sensibility of the British fern hobbyist.
“It must be a pure and simple taste which finds pleasure in the culture of plants which have no gaudy blossoms to attract vulgar attention,” he wrote.
That’s right: flowers are for riffraff.
I discovered Mr. Hibberd’s quote in “The Victorian Fern Craze,” a social history by David Elliston Allen. At the tail end of “pteridomania” in the late 1860s, Mr. Allen writes, fern motifs “broke out on glass and china, on curtains and wallpaper, in needlework, on decorative tiles, even on wrought-iron chairs and benches for the garden.”
The place to find a fern of modern refinement was not in a big-box store like the Home Depot, between the gas grills and the mousetraps. So I made a field trip, instead, to the fern room at the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory in St. Paul. It was in hothouses like these that early 19th-century botanists installed finicky tropical ferns after long sea voyages.
Hardy ferns are hardly uncommon in the United States and Canada. Some 420 species can be found in the wild, said Robbin Moran, curator of ferns at the New York Botanical Garden. But ferns truly abound in what we might call the “Survivor” latitudes — the tropics in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America, where Jeff Probst can also be found. Costa Rica alone has 1,200 species of ferns, Dr. Moran said.
The local conservatory, and its 100-odd species, hinted at the strange pageantry of Fern Land. I started at the beginning, in a sense, with a stand of horsetails (Equisetum). Some form of these reedy, hollow stems have hung around the earth for 360 million years.
Ferns in general enjoy a reputation for being the oldest vascular plants on earth. But not all of them have earned their AARP discount. As Dr. Moran writes in his collection of essays, “A Natural History of Ferns,” many fern families developed just 75 million years ago, well after the arrival of flowering plants.
Perhaps what we mean by old, then, is “weird.” The five-fingered felt fern (Pyrrosia polydactyla), a kind of glove shaped like a marijuana leaf, looked like a skateboard sticker from the ’70s. A mammoth bird’s-nest fern (Asplenium australasicum), meanwhile, resembled a set piece from the TV show “Land of the Lost.”
My favorite fern in the conservatory, however, suggested a less kitschy sensibility. True to its name, the staghorn fern (Platycerium spp.) had the forked fronds of a trophy rack. And it lived on a mount of wire-and-fiber matting. I could imagine the staghorn in a Guy Maddin movie, leaping off its wall plaque and clattering, disembodied, down an empty hall.
BROWSING at a conservatory presents two problems. First, you can’t take the plants home. Second, they wouldn’t survive if you did. Put another way, while I was window shopping, I should have been looking for a wall of windows as well.
For all their goth ornamentation, ferns are not creatures of darkness. Many appreciate what we might think of as mood lighting. The staghorn and the bird’s-nest, for instance, are epiphytes. When gymnosperms — seed-bearing plants — started shading ferns out on the forest floor, these genera evolved to grow on the trunks and branches of trees. What they want is steady, dappled sunlight.
“Almost all of my ferns go outside in the summer,” said Mr. Stuart, who grows perhaps three dozen species indoors. (Another 80-odd hardy ferns dwell in his garden.) “They have higher light levels, even though they’re in the shade.” It is during this “summer vacation” that Mr. Stuart’s ferns do most of their growing, he said.
Another thing I was missing was an industrial humidifier that could make my apartment mist up like John Boehner watching “The Color Purple.” Many ferns thrive in 60 to 80 percent humidity. But with the heat blasting indoors during a Minnesota winter, the humidity level at home was perhaps a third of that.
Reggie Whitehead, “a song-and-dance man” by trade who is “50ish,” says that he has grown all 18 varieties of staghorn fern in his half-acre yard in South Miami, Fla. “We fern people think it’s not nearly enough humidity,” he said of the Miami climate. Apparently, Mr. Whitehead should also consider working in comedy.
So how would he recommend I grow a staghorn inside?
“I would not try to grow it inside,” Mr. Whitehead said, not quite laughing. If I were determined to try, he added, I could attempt to raise a smaller specimen in a hanging basket or a pot with ventilation holes.
Ultimately, the staghorn might get too big for short pants. At full size, staghorns have been known to pull down whole trees. I’d face that problem when I came to it.
To start, I’d need a coarse potting soil. This mixture (available by the bag) might contain “everything from charcoal and pea rock to coco chips and sphagnum moss,” Mr. Whitehead said.
As an epiphyte, the staghorn would be very clingy, and would need something to hold on to. One of Mr. Whitehead’s “spectacular specimens” fell out of a tree last year while he was touring the country in “Porgy and Bess.”
At the same time, “too much soil would smother the roots,” he said. Instead, I would lay the growing rhizome on top of the potting mix, like a napping doll. If the plant grew restive, I could strap it down with wire.
Having kept a staghorn alive in suburban New York, well into its adolescence, Mr. Stuart was a bit more encouraging. “There’s just one staghorn I would recommend,” he said. “It’s the one that I grow.” That is, Platycerium bifurcatum.
This staghorn, an Australian native, has a dry temperament for a fern. “This will not tolerate being wet,” Mr. Stuart said. “I water bifurcatum once a week, never more.”
Outside in the spring and summer — rutting season, so to speak — the staghorn fends for itself.
MY neighborhood garden store offered to place a special order for a staghorn fern. But Mr. Stuart recommended Glasshouse Works, an online catalog and store in Stewart, Ohio, that stocks nearly 100 varieties of fern (and their botanical kissing cousins).
After the staghorn ($12.50), I found another epiphyte that had beguiled me at the conservatory, the kangaroo fern ($15). This plant has more aliases than an eBay scam artist: Microsorum pustulatum, Microsorum diversifolium and Polypodium diversifolium, among others. The foliage was profligate, almost giddy, with its crenellations. If Keith Haring had worked in frond design, the kangaroo fern would have been his masterpiece.
I had two of the dormers in my kitchen taken care of now. That left one window open. Having cast my lot with a couple of tetchy characters, I was looking for something fast-growing, robust, independent. In other words, a Boston fern ($17).
So what if it was common? The ebb of fern fever, Mr. Allen wrote, had “pricked a precious delusion of the Victorian gentry: that refined tastes were possible only in possessors of refined social backgrounds.”
Once this apartment belonged to a mighty archbishop. Now it belongs to me. A fern doesn’t know and a fern doesn’t care.
How to Cultivate Your Own Primeval Forest
BEFORE a gardener starts shopping for a pteridophyte, it helps to speak fern-ish. Here, for instance, is the “Fern Grower’s Manual” describing a type of oak-leaf fern: “Drynaria rigidula is the only species of Drynaria with one-pinnate fronds and sessile, wedge-shaped pinnae narrowly winged to the rachis.”
Got that? Happily, anyone can become fluent by chapter two of this magisterial guidebook by Barbara Joe Hoshizaki. For the pragmatic reader, Ms. Hoshizaki dispenses cultivation advice for more than 700 ferns. Drynaria rigidula, for example, “prefers high light and drained, moist-dry potting mix or uncut moss.” That sounds suspiciously like English.
Robbin Moran, the fern curator at the New York Botanical Garden, is an author of the revised edition of the manual. If you still can’t tell your pinnae from your rachis, Dr. Moran can be found at meetings of the New York Fern Society, the first Saturday of each month from October to May, at 10 a.m., in the botanical garden Herbarium.
Ferns occasionally turn up for sale after the society’s gatherings. But if a pilgrimage to the Bronx isn’t on the itinerary, you can peruse an array of outdoor ferns for sale at Fancy Fronds Nursery (fancyfronds.com/list.cfm) and Foliage Gardens (foliagegardens.com).
Just be prepared to wait a bit for your order, said Sue Olsen, owner of Foliage Gardens. “I hold off on shipping until the ferns are beyond their soft new growth,” she wrote in an e-mail.
For both catalogs, early May is a good target. One way to pass the time is to read Ms. Olsen’s “Encyclopedia of Garden Ferns,” which is full of vivid prose and sleepy green photos.
Glasshouse Works (glasshouseworks.com) will try to fulfill your urgent fern needs a little sooner. And it offers dozens of tropical ferns, too. Those south of the Mason-Dixon line can expect late March delivery; early April for New York City. For the pathologically impatient, overnight shipping is possible. Plan on a heat pack, and a $50 U.P.S. charge.
Glasshouse Works should have a different oak-leaf fern, Drynaria quercifolia, available in late spring. In the meantime, Tom Stuart, a New York fern expert, recommended another favorite, the rabbit’s-foot fern (Davallia spp.).
Cute name. But a more honest handle would be the grotesque and disturbing tarantula fern. The plant’s furry rhizomes will “creep over the edge of your basket,” Mr. Stuart said. “Eventually, they cover it and smother the whole pot. It puts on a good show if you like that.”
And it’s perfectly fine if you don’t.