The tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica) in my garden have just exploded with their 2020 coat... plumes of wonderful new fronds. These dramatic evergreen ferns are amongst my favourite plants and are native to southeast Australia.
heir crowns can grow to 12ft across when the plant is happy and their trunks can grow up to 15ft or more after many years. The trunk is all root so it's common in their native Victoria to cut them down, remove the fronds, put them in a refrigerated container, send them halfway round the world, pot them up and let them start a new life.
Given the right time and location, they will regain their former majesty. When the base of the trunk comes into contact with moist compost, it stimulates it to produce new roots.
They like a bit of shade (but not too much shade - or they get thin and drawn), nice organic soil and humidity. They like space to show off their umbrella-like display. Their hardiness varies from plant to plant, with no way of anticipating which ones are hardy and which ones are not until it's too late.
If it gets extremely cold in winter, wrap them up with horticultural fleece or hessian. The rate of growth varies enormously according to microclimate and soil conditions. An 'okay' Dicksonia will produce a new rosette of fronds in the spring and then stop growing until the following spring. A 'happy' Dicksonia will do the same but then just carry on producing new fronds at an extraordinary rate.
They've been grown in gardens in these islands for over 200 years, after being first introduced from Australia in 1786, when they were collected by plant hunters and sent back to Kew in London.
Their introduction to our gardens may have been accidental, however. Their trunks were often used as ballast for cargoes during long sea journeys in the 19th century. When the shops were unloaded at docks, some of these discarded trunks resprouted and so were taken away to be replanted in gardens.
Magnificent examples can be found in Ireland in Kells Bay Gardens near Cahirciveen and at Derreen Gardens on the Beara Peninsula, both in Co Kerry. In the UK, Cornish gardens such as Heligan, Trengwainton and Trewidden have spectacular plantations of them.
What was different in the early 2000s was their use in suburban gardens and their widespread availability in not only garden centres but DIY sheds, which also had a trade in plants. There was an explosion of interest in these dramatic ferns and they became feature plants in back gardens across the UK.
For about 10 years, I travelled incessantly and moved house nearly as often. I was longing for the day when I could put down roots, so to speak, and establish a permanent garden - and I couldn't wait to plant these favourites of mine.
On the first terrace of my sloping site, I built a rectangular pool and surrounded it with around 10 tree ferns. I also built a first-floor verandah (pictured above) at the back of the house - a perfect viewing platform to look down on top of them. Our recent drought hasn't helped the tree ferns' growth. They love heavy downpours. Where I live is not far from the coast so it's generally warmish, with only occasional snow. Tree ferns love airborne moisture and they've been longing for the heavens to open over the past few months.
With the right conditions, they grow fairly fast, and my collection - despite being a little thirsty - are sprouting fronds that remind me of feathery ostrich plumes. They're lush, green and appear to be very happy.
What was, just a few years ago, a relatively bare terrace, now looks like a subtropical jungle. I've underplanted them with a wonderful shade-loving biennial Geranium palmatum (pictured left) and that results in clouds of pink froth weaving its way around the base of the dark, hairy stems.
As a combination, it's a real delight and, even on the dullest days, the drama of this plantation lifts my heart.
A couple of things to consider when it comes to growing tree ferns: be sure to water the stem and crown as that's where the roots are. Finally, make sure that you purchase from a reputable licensed source so you are not contributing to habitat destruction overseas.
I don't cut off the dead fronds - I like the layers of colour with fresh lime-green on top and bronzy leaves underneath. It replicates what happens in nature and avoids looking overly neat.