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. But the Morris siblings were not just dabbling in the trends of the day; both John and Lydia were serious about their hobby.
Today, this throwback to the Victorian era still stands on the Morrises’ old property, which is the present-day site of the Morris Arboretum.
Although the fernery slowly fell into disrepair in the century after its initial construction, it was fully restored and reopened to the public in 1994 thanks to a gracious donation from board member Dorrance H. Hamilton and other contributors who responded to a major matching grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The $1.2 million renovation included restoring the roof to the original curvature, replacing and updating the heating and electrical systems, installing an advanced climate control system, and restoring the waterfall, ponds, and stone walls. The blue flagstone plaza was also installed during this project to welcome visitors and provide a shaded, relaxing place to stop and enjoy the Arboretum.
Today, the Dorrance H. Hamilton Fernery is the only remaining freestanding Victorian fernery in North America.
“It’s the gem of the Arboretum,” said Shelley Dillard, Propagator at the Arboretum. “I love working in here. It’s just wonderful.”
The fernery is a uniquely warm respite during the cold months, as it is heated to 63 degrees―though it does get warmer inside the glass walls during the middle of the day. Most of the fernery’s collection was put in place at the time of the massive renovation in 1994, and includes temperate plants that can be grown in climates like San Francisco, the Pacific Northwest, or England, said Dillard.
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 said, of grooming and letting the plants naturally populate areas inside the fernery.
“We let them grow how they’re going to grow,” Dillard said.