Green forest dwellers

2008-07-14 00:00

Cyathea dregei (tree fern, Boomvaring, Isikhomane) — this magnificent plant is a true joy to observe in its natural habitat.

Cyathea dregei is one of the two indigenous tree ferns. It a very distinctive fern which can grow up to five metres and has a sturdy dark brown to blackish trunk topped by lush arching light-green fronds. Young fronds are coiled like watch springs. Unlike the forest tree fern the leaflet margins have no teeth.

The tree fern is the most well known of the two tree ferns. Its stunning appearance lends a tropical atmosphere to a garden. This plant can be used as a focal point in the garden, where it can be grown in dappled shade under mature trees or along the banks of a stream or at the edge of a pond. Although suitable for marsh gardens or permanently moist ground, it does not like to have all of its roots waterlogged at all times, so plant it where some of the roots will be relatively dry while others can stretch out for the damp areas. A tree fern must never lack water.

Tree ferns can be propagated from the spores which are produced on the underside of the leaves. Sprinkle the spores on to porous material, such as moss. They must be kept permanently damp and kept in slight shade and at a controlled temperature of 17° to 20°.

Tree ferns are a protected species, so removing tree ferns from the wild is illegal, but plants can be bought from certain nurseries. Large tree ferns which are dug up out of their natural habitat and replanted often die within two years.

Tree ferns are slow growing — only five to 10 centimetres per year. Plant the tree fern in fertile, light and well-drained soil and add plenty of compost. Provide a thick mulch of organic material around the trunk of this forest-loving plant, but do not dig around the trunk as the tree fern does not like root disturbance of any kind. Although the beautiful fronds are susceptible to frost, the trunk can withstand frost and fire. Remove the old leaves to keep the fern looking tidy.

The second tree fern species found in South Africa is Cyathea capensis (Forest tree fern). This species is found only in forests, close to streams, from the Western Cape to Limpopo Province. The most distinctive difference between the two tree ferns is that the forest fern’s main stem is slender and it has a tangled mass of hair-like structures at the base of its fronds.

Tree ferns lack both the flowers and fruits of other indigenous species, however, Malachite Sunbirds are often found nesting in them. The tree fern is distributed from the southern Cape to the eastern escarpment, wherever there is high rainfall or abundant ground water. They often occur along drainage lines and in shady forests.

• Sonja van der Merwe is an indigenous plant enthusiast and owner of Springvale Nursery and Gardening. She can be contacted at 033 212 4704.

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