When she hung in the small courtyard of my mother’s Florida home, Victoria was known as “The Fern” because neither her botanical name (Phlebodium aureum ‘Mandaianum’) nor her common name (bear’s paw fern) worked well for conversational use. But as the The Fern matured she became Victoria, in recognition of her grand stature, commanding presence, and demanding ways—demonstrated by frond drop as a result of either too much or too little water.
During a visit home, when I was still in graduate school, Mother asked if I wanted Victoria. She knew I liked plants, and I gladly accepted. This was a decade or so after my father gave the plant to her as a set of fronds stapled to
a coconut spathe. At the time of transfer to me, Victoria had a 3-foot-wide frond span, overflowing from the 10-inch-diameter hanging basket she grew in.
Mother, who washed, dried, and saved plastic bags of all sizes and descriptions before ziplocks were conceived of, had the perfect-size bag in which to encase Victoria. We slid her in, folding the fronds upward, and secured the top with a twist tie.
This was during the age of air-travel innocence, and I intended to lay the bagged plant in the overhead luggage compartment on my return flight to Boston. But as I boarded, clutching the hanging-basket hanger in one hand and my roll-aboard in the other, the pilot asked me, “Is that a plant?”
“Why, yes,” I replied.
Graciously, he offered to put the plant behind his seat in the cockpit. Thus, Victoria traveled in better-than-first-class service, while I was cramped between an overweight gentleman incessantly chewing sunflower seeds and a woman who cried during takeoff and landing.
The captain met me, with Victoria in hand, at the cockpit door. I naively thanked him and deplaned, never thinking he had hoped to use the plant as a pickup gambit. Years later, when I tell the story, my husband looks at me with a how-dumb-could-you-have-been look. I counter with “I thought he just liked plants,” and the look is renewed with emphasis.
Victoria dominated our living room in winter and the backyard in summer. We could not use the fireplace when she was indoors because her frond span was so great that we feared curling her edges from the fire’s heat. I wanted to take a butcher knife to the plant and divide it to restrain her to a more livable size, but when I tried, a hue and cry arose from my husband, insisting that Victoria be spared the knife. He suggested that, instead of downsizing, we should repot her into a larger container and enter Victoria in the Philadelphia Flower Show. I relented and repotted, and we entered her in the Oldies but Goodies class that year.
Victoria required a 10-foot-long moving truck to transport her to the show. Her traveling garb consisted of two nylon shower curtains sewn together to encircle her full figure of upraised fronds, allowing smooth passage through doorways.
She took second place, and again I tried to cut and divide, but again my husband protested. “The judges are getting used to Victoria. Enter her next year, and she’ll get the blue.”
Victoria was entered into the Oldies but Goodies class the following year and won a first-place blue ribbon. My chance to use the knife was lost forever.
The next year, Victoria moved from the Oldies but Goodies class to the 14-inch-diameter and larger hanging-fern class, which repeats three times during the show, and she has won at least one blue ribbon every year since.
With her growing fame came commensurately improved accommodations. A nursery three blocks from her summer spot in our garden became Victoria’s winter home, where she had light, warmth, and water without restriction.
We transported Her Majesty to and from that greenhouse using a coatrack on wheels. Swinging from the hanging rod on an industrial-strength hook—with my husband in the lead, providing pulling power, and me in the rear, keeping the rack rolling straight—Victoria traveled with an entourage of attendants across a major thoroughfare, up a side street, and through the front doors of the greenhouse each autumn.
This year, however, we erected a large greenhouse especially for Victoria, where she now resides, awaiting the first week in March when she will, once again, bestow her royal presence upon the thousands in attendance at the Philadelphia Flower Show.
—Lynn J. Cook; her husband, Troy; and Victoria reside in Landenburg, Pennsylvania.
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