Leaf of the Day: Midsummer`s Eve and the Fishtail Sword Fern

I could fill pages and pages of this blog with gorgeous images, superstitions, poetry and folklore about this magical and unruly night. The night of the faeries in all their whimsy, mischief and malevolence. If ever I had childish dreams of being an actress it was ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ that had me enthralled. The problem with attending an all girls school of course is that someone has to play the male roles…and someone has to play Bottom. My teacher said it was a key role and needed the talents of a fine actress…Ah well ..it was better than being a voice off stage and I got to make my very own lovely papier mache head.

Arthur Rackham, ‘Titania and Bottom’

I was steeped in fairy stories as a child having constantly read two ancient and now crumbling books of Old English Fairy Tales illustrated by J D Batten. If I had to trace back the real roots of my love of illustration, black and white images, and storytelling it has to be these two volumes of dark and cautionary tales where every narrative is heavily laden with the dire consequences of taking the ‘wrong road’ in every sense.

Robert Edward Hughes ‘Midsummer Night’

The 23rd of June is the old Midsummer’s Eve and the night of the year when ‘faerie’ spirits are especially powerful and flowers gathered on Midsummer’s Eve can work magic. Puck uses pansy juice as a love potion to wreak some romantic havoc (see also my post on pansies.) Cutting a rose on Midsummer’s Eve drying it, and then wearing it on New Year’s Eve will draw the attention of the young man you are destined to marry. Wear some thyme, scatter thistles round your cows to stop the faeries stealing the milk, …. and too many others to list.
A very well known practice was the sowing of hemp seed in order to then acquire a lover.

At eve last midsummer no sleep I sought,
But to the field a bag of hemp-seed brought;
I scatter’d round the seed on every side,
And three times in a trembling accent cried, —
“This hemp-seed with my virgin hands I sow,
Who shall my true love be, the crop shall mow.”
I straight look’d back, and, if my eyes speak truth,
With his keen scythe behind me came the youth.

From John Gay’s The Shepherd’s Week, in Six Pastorals, first published in London, 1714.

A particularly chilling practice was recorded by Robert Hunt

If a young unmarried woman stands at midnight on midsummer-eve in the porch of the parish church, she will see, passing by in procession, every one who will die in the parish during the year. This is so serious an affair that it is not, I believe, often tried. I have, however, heard of young women who have made the experiment. But every one of the stories relates that, coming last in the procession, they have seen shadows of themselves; that from that day forward they have pined, and ere midsummer has again come round, that they have been laid to rest in the village graveyard.

Robert Hunt ” The Drolls, Traditions, and Superstitions of Old Cornwall” 1871.

Images of fairies abound but none have really captured the strangeness and sense of ‘other’ as well the Victorian painters whose engagement with this world brought us some strange and wonderful works. For me one of the most compelling has to be Richards Dadd’s “Fairy Fellas Masterstroke”.. here is all the strangeness of fairyland rendered in meticulous detail in a painting containing all the unease of a restless laudanum induced sleep and harking back to the nightmare lands of Hieronymus Bosch.

I will be coming back to this painting in more depth..it needs to be looked at in detail, both the painter and the painting are fascinating and it has some interesting things to say, about plants as much as fairies.

But let’s leave the dark side and let’s be reassured that the true spirit of beauty and grace is still alive and well and that Shakespeare’s heroine has found her most sublime embodiment in none other than the lovely Barbie..
At Amazon from a mere 139 dollars, New or “Used” (.. oh dear.. the mind boggles)…a collectors edition..
“Barbie is ethereal as Titania, Queen of the Fairies, from the ballet “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Barbie has long golden curling hair decorated with flowers. Her frothy costume is shimmering blue-green taffeta with a full tutu skirt in blue, green and pink. With tiny “wings” of taffeta, she appears to float. Tiny purple ballet slippers on her pointed toes let her dance into your heart.”

This gorgeous silver label creature is awarded stars based on these telling criteria, “Fun” (oh dear) .. “Durability ( oh dear god no ) and “Educational” ( ?).
Satisfied customers are ecstatic and I am empathetic…

I am glad that she rates a full five stars for educational value for ‘the link to Shakespeare’s play Midsummer Nights Dream, and the chance to learn the play’
I am sad that ” they did not give her Elven ears!.. after all she is the queen of the fairies! “ ( which I first read as eleven ears and whoops! .. the product development team not attending to details here!!)
I am enchanted by her “Her rooted eyelashes and glittery eyeshadow which emphasize her lovely face. ” and ” the unique shape of her wings and the many layers of her fluffy tutu”
I am charmed by her “Classic sur la pointe pose in the toe shoes”

I am lost for words….

Carolyn, this will bring back fond memories of our bizarre former employment and Rebecca, you really need to get one of these as a visual aid for your students.

As for the drawing how can I compete.. but ferns play a big part in these Midsummer Eve superstitions. According to legend if you sprinkle some of the “seeds” in your shoes you will be able to achieve invisibility. and the same seeds are said to protect from evil spirits. Most interestingly, if you find the yellow golden fern flower, which allegedly blooms at midnight on Midsummer’s Eve, you will be guided to treasure either by just throwing it in the air or climbing a mountain holding the flower.. Hmmm…well I won’t be staying up… but I will sprinkle some of the tiny spores into my purse to help the money situation!
Here is a drawing of just one fern leaflet of the beautiful Nephrolepis falcata, the Fishtail Sword Fern. This is a very handsome fern with these big divided leaflets. This one has the sori .. shown as little bumps on the surface and more noticeable on the reverse.


The Fish Tale Sword Fern

Leaf of the Day: Tiffany’s Leaves of Glass and the Japanese Holly Fern

Yesterday for a break I went to Winter Park Village to the Tiffany museum. Yes, here on my doorstep is the small Charles Hosmer Morse Museum celebrating the life and work of the famous Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933) son of Tiffany the jeweller, and designer and maker of the sumptuous stained glass windows and lamps.
I have to come clean and say I have never really been a big fan, perhaps because of the many dismal copies that used to clutter up cheap lighting shops in London but now having seen the originals I have to admit they are quite breathtaking.

Coming into the darkened museum from bright sunlight, just finding the ticket desk is quite a challenge, but once you are accustomed to the dim lighting, the glowing colours of the glass start to become apparent. The displays are beautifully lit and there are fragments of glass you can walk around ..so being able to see the structure on the reverse of the glass panels and the leading. There are exquisite lustred glass vases inset with tiny millefiori flowers, ceramics, jewellery, paintings and window panels big and small, and of course the lamps which are much larger, and therefore more impressive than I had imagined.

But what has turned me into a convert is the textural aspect of the glass ..this is not fragile thin stuff but gorgeous big chunks, sometimes with moulded textural surfaces set into large panels. Sometimes with real pebbles added , sometimes with pieces of natural rock crystal and, within some of the individual pieces, abstract chips of colour seem to float adding depth and shading.
In these fragments below you can see the slivers of darker glass in the grey piece top left.

There is a desperate and overwhelming desire to touch, glass does that doesn’t it …to run you fingers over these glowing surfaces and luckily there is one panel displayed at waist height for you to “get it out of your system” as the guide so rightly says.

In the spirit of Art Nouveau, Tiffany was an interpreter of nature par excellence, butterflies, dragonflies, wisteria dripping down window panes, shells, vegetable ceramics, spiders web lamps, daffodils and more and more.. there is a whole garden and it’s inhabitants of shimmering painted and lustred glass.
What I particularly like about his work is that he took his inspiration from quite ordinary garden flowers and vegetables. One of the most beautiful Favrille ceramics is a cream vase based on celery. These sculptural pieces are almost life size.
Here is an example of the simple cream Favrille. This is not an octopus as I first thought, but fern fronds. (similarities in nature again)

Louis Comfort Tiffany’s company was initially very successful and of course a huge help was being the son of the already celebrated jeweller. He grew up as a member of the New York elite and started in the interior design business. A legacy of 35 million dollars from his father also helped which he poured into new technology and designs constantly experimenting and developing new products and techniques. However the advent of the fashion for Art Deco, combined with Tiffany’s own restless experimentation at the expense of company profits, eventually rendered the company bankrupt in 1932. Nowadays a good Tiffany lamp will cost you $35,000.00 and more.

Image from the Metropolitan Museum New York

My very modest contribution to this post, a tribute to Tiffany’s fern vase, is a small study of two leaflets and a young frond of the Japanese Holly fern, cyrtomium falcatum. The Japanese actually call it the “devil´s fern” because of its serrated a edges and tough appearance. The leaflets are quite large approximately 4″ from tip to toe, but it was the curling frond that I liked, with the new tiny leaflets cupped in the curl of the stem, carefully folded over each other, each protecting its sibling underneath. Quite lovely.


Japanese Holly Fern

Leaf of the Day: “Ferns in Space” The Resurrection Fern

These three little fern fronds are from the Resurrection Fern, pleopeltis polypodioides..two words I intend to use constantly at the next Winter Park cocktail party. These pretty little ferns can be seen dancing along the lower limbs of the great oaks and making lacy collars round the bases of the palms. They are as synonymous with visions of the ‘old south’ as Spanish moss and Vivien Lee.
Their name comes from their amazing ability to go without water, it has been calculated they could survive for as much as 100 years, during which time they will curl up tightly and appear to be dead. Then, come that longed for shower, they burst into life again, the fronds reabsorb water, slowly regain their bright green colour, and uncurl, unrolling each leaflet to return to their original shape. This near perfect adaptation enables them to survive the hottest of Florida summers.
They are small, only up to 6 inches in height and grow from a central creeping root which threads itself along the tree bark. On old trees they form dense mats and you would think the branches would collapse under the weight but these little ferns are a light as a feather.

These particular ferns belong to the air plant family, strange and fascinating plants which, (when not glued onto horrible bits of resin “sculpture” in the UK and condemned to dust) attach themselves to to other plants, taking their nutrients from the air and from water that collects on the outer surface of bark.
In 1997 this little fern became the first “fern in space” aboard the shuttle, as part of an experiment to see if it would resurrect in space..today I hear they can grow marigolds in moon dust.

These are, as you can see, in their un-resurrected state but the one on the left is beginning to uncurl and its lower leaves are beginning to straighten out. They are from the little cycad I had drawn before here in my post “Dinosaur Food” but I do have my own small piece of resurrection fern which Pedro gave me.
Following his strict instructions I have tied it to a rock with raffia and the rock sits in a dish of water so it is watered by osmosis. I have to stop myself wanting to spray it constantly, as to see the fronds curled up is not what a caring gardener feels a plant should look like. Happily it is rewarding my restraint with some tiny new curly fronds. It’s a little darling.


Resurrection Fern

Leaf of the Day: Cabbage Palm Fern and Nature Printing

This little fern frond is from the Cabbage Palm Fern which grows in the ‘boots’ of the palm trees all over Orlando. The boots are where the leaves have joined the trunk, providing a cleft for the fern to take root in. It grows in crevices and cracks of walls, in nooks and crannies of oak trees and anywhere it can get a bit of nutrient, but is at its prettiest decorating the trunks of the palms. This is again from the border at the bottom of the steps here. There are many beautiful ferns in Florida and its is tempting to make February a Florida Fern month.. maybe I will, but some of them are very complicated to draw!

On Saturday I found a good shop nearby which sells all sort of antiquities from Egyptian shabtis to dinosaur eggs. I picked up this fossilised fern there, embedded and preserved in slate, 310-280 million years old. It¡s from Pennsylvania, an amazing little bit of history for just a few dollars.

Nature Printing
It reminded me of the beautiful fern illustrations in Thomas Moore’s “The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland” produced in London in 1855 by the difficult and laborious ‘nature printing’ process. Each engraving plate was made from an actual plant then hand coloured. Here is an example from the book and more examples in a article from the George Glazer Gallery here explaining the process. This would be fascinating to try.
I particularly like the way the stem has been just turned up in order to get the image to fit on the page. In a similar way Audubon had to arrange some of the larger birds like the flamingo in awkward poses to make them fit the ‘elephant ‘ format of the pages. Somehow there is a truthfulness here which is very engaging and has no artifice.


Cabbage Palm Fern