The Victorians were obsessed with ferns. – they collected them, wrote about them, dried them, sketched them… and spent huge amounts of money building special greenhouses to grow them. Even Charles Dickens got in on the craze, growing them on his English country estate. Americans got in on the act, too. Today, the best place to get a glimpse of the American fern craze is Morris Arboretum, whose 1899 greenhouse is the only remaining freestanding Victorian fernery in North America. This small, sunken garden was constructed using locally mined stone and utilized cutting edge (Victorian) technology in glass cutting, steam heating, and architectural elements. Restored to its Victorian grandeur in 1994, today’s garden visitors can enjoy this glimpse of the past. The small space is filled with a huge variety of ferns (many of which look nothing like the typical fern), a waterfall, pond (complete with koi) and grotto (complete with Buddha statue).
Morris Arboretum was the summer estate of siblings Lydia and John Morris. Their father made a fortune in iron manufacturing and John and Lydia spent it traveling the world, collecting as they went. Their legacy can still be seen around Philadelphia – John’s collection of Greek coins at the Penn Museum, Lydia’s donation of colonial Cedar Grove and its colonial furnishings to the city, and her donation of Morris Arboretum (formally called “Compton”) to the University of Pennsylvania. Sadly, after years of housing the university’s departments of botany and landscaping, the Victorian mansion was torn down in 1968. But, some of the original garden features remain, including: the 1908 log cabin used by Lydia as a retreat, the carriage house/stables (now used as a visitor center), the 1888 Rose garden, the 1908 Moorish fountain (built after a visit to the Alhambra), the 1912 Japanese garden, the romantic temple and swan pond (1905), the classical Mercury loggia and grotto (1913), and my favorite – the rock wall planted with spring flowers:
The garden’s website has a cool tour – showing photos of the gardens today with archival images: http://www.morrisarboretum.org/tours_thennow.shtml
The garden’s collection of witchhazels, makes this a great late winter escape (late February-early March), when you are desperate for some sign of spring – plus, the fernery is well heated, making it a nice place to warm up.
Another favorite feature is the large garden railroad (with natural versions of Philadelphia landmarks). It’s open during warm weather and around the holidays. They even have special train weekends, including a circus train and everyone’s favorite Thomas.
Tobey says: a pretty place to take photos.