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  • Writer's pictureSim Elliott

A Tale of Two Ferns: Royal Fern & Tunbridge Filmy Fern in Sussex. 23 & 26.09.23

Updated: Sep 28, 2023

The exact locations of these ferns has not been included in this account; to protect them should there be fern collectors still around.


All sections of text in italics are quotations, sources given.


I have been looking for Royal Ferns and Tunbridge Filmy Ferns in Sussex for two years to no avail, until this week, when I saw both in four days.


Royal Fern, Osmunda regalis


The Victorian fern collecting craze, abetted by habitat loss, has cleared Royal Fern as a native from virtually the whole of Sussex. Hall (1980) Microsoft Word - RDB_final_v2.doc (sxbrc.org.uk) My partner has needed a high degree of care over the last few weeks following major surgery; my typical pattern of three day-long nature walks a week has had to be temporarily suspended and has been replaced by two half day walks.


On Saturday 23/09/23 I decided to go t; one of my favourite destinations in Sussex. I spent two hours looking at flowering plants (not many in flower), lichens, bryophytes and fungi and at the very end I cam across a fern growing out of an Ardingly Sandstone outcrop. It was Osmunda regalis




A large fern of neutral or acidic substrates in wet heathland, blanket bog, fen-carr woodland and ditches, and occasionally on riverbanks, rocky lake shores, limestone sea cliffs, mires and sand dune-slacks. In western Ireland it also grows in wet fields. It is often confined to inaccessible sites in grazed areas. ... O. regalis was heavily collected in Victorian times for cultivation and osmunda fibre for orchid cultivation. This, together with habitat destruction in the lowlands, caused its decline, although few sites have been lost since the 1960s, and it is now recovering in some areas. There are many new records for Ireland and the north-western Scotland since 2000 due to fuller recording. It is also planted and occurs as a garden escape, and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between these and native occurrences. Osmunda regalis L. in BSBI Online Plant Atlas 2020


Distribution Map



Hunters will go to any length to track down their prey. Τhey will cross ridges and climb mountains, risk life and limb, outwit adversaries… even when the prey in question is a very, very stationary fern.


In the 19th century, Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic came down with a severe case of “fern fever”: a craze for all things related to the humble yet ancient plant. It began in 1829, when British surgeon and explorer Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward invented the Wardian case, a glass contraption that kept exotic plants alive in foggy England. His invention allowed botanist George Loddiges to build the world’s largest hothouse in Eas London, which included a fern nursery.


Even though the plant was already associated with fairies, magic and the more primeval aspects of nature, Loddiges knew that he needed to hype ferns even further in order to attract visitors to his hothouse. So he spread the rumor that fern collecting showed intelligence and improved both virility and mental health. Soon, his neighbor, the famed botanist Edward Newman, published A History of British Ferns, a very well-received book which supported Loddiges’ claims.


We’ll never know if Newman was a true fern enthusiasts or if he was caught up in Loddiges’ rhetoric. In any case, his claims caught on. People started buying and cultivating the rarest specimens they could find, placing them inside increasingly elaborate hothouses. From the start, fern collecting was one of very few hobbies to transcend class barriers: miners and farmers were as likely as aristocrats and scientists to be avid collectors. Indeed, the aristocracy encouraged the poor and the mentally ill to take up the ennobling hobby, and thus elevate themselves. How the Victorian Fern-Hunting Craze Led To Adventure, Romance, and Crime - Atlas Obscura


An 1871 illustration of a party gathering ferns. PUBLIC DOMAIN


Ferns and fern motifs appeared everywhere; in homes, gardens, art and literature. Their images adorned rugs, tea sets, chamber pots, garden benches – even custard cream biscuits. Pteridomania - Fern Madness (historic-uk.com)


Tunbridge Filmy Fern, Hymenophyllum tunbrigense


By chance, my first ever sighting of Tunbridge Filmy Fern was in Wales earlier this year at Coed Felenrhyd in North Wales, see Coed Felenrhyd and Llennyrch, Maentwrog, Wales. Wild flowers, ferns, bryophytes & lichens. 15.08.23 for photos. But yesterdays trip to one of my favourite locations in Sussex yielded a much larger clump of Tunbridge Filmy Fern than at Coed Felenrhyd. I decided to take a detour from my normal route at this location and followed a little ghyll running from the main path and wow! A huge patch of Tunbridge Filmy Fern










First recorded in 1686 by Dr. Dare at Tunbridge Wells but has been extinct there since at least 1875. There are scattered localities in the High Weald where it was feared that the devastation wrought by the great storm of October 1987 would cause the demise of many sites. In 1994 a survey of known sites, carried out to ascertain the status of the Tunbridge Filmy fern, found a number of healthy colonies, some showing an increase in numbers. This species is noted in Wigginton (1999) as one for which Britain has special responsibility. Sussex Rare Plant Register Microsoft Word - RDB_final_v2.doc (sxbrc.org.uk)


A rhizomatous, perennial, mat-forming fern of very sheltered, often deeply shaded, humid habitats; these include acidic rock faces, humic banks and tree trunks, particularly in deep wooded stream valleys, and crevices on upland boulder scree. The distribution of H. tunbrigense is now largely stable, due in part to fuller and more intensive searching, with the majority of losses having occurred before 1930, though a further fifth of sites in south-eastern England were lost by the end of the 20th century, largely through woodland loss and shading by Rhododendron ponticum. It is likely to survive in many of the sites in western Scotland where it has not been recorded this century. Hymenophyllum tunbrigense (L.) Sm. in BSBI Online Plant Atlas 2020




One .... group of ferns that ... [is] restricted in its potential habitat is the filmy ferns (Hymenophyllaceae). These ferns derive their name from their extremely thin lamina, which is only one cell layer thick. In addition, filmy ferns also lack any differentiated epidermis or stomata. Thus, they are highly dependent on environmental moisture and occur only in moist (but not completely wet) areas. The filmy ferns have diversified extensively within this niche, displaying an amazing degree of variation in both morphology (erect to long-creeping rhizome, robust roots or rootless, simple to divided fronds, overall size minute to large) and growth habit (terrestrial, epipetric, epiphytic, and liana) Distribution, Ecology, and Systematics of the Filmy Ferns (Hymenophyllaceae) of Moorea, French Polynesia (escholarship.org)

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