The Victorian Fern Garden
This mysterious and atmospheric garden appears almost lost in time, explore its cascading stream and National Collection of ferns in this magical hanging valley.
Canonteign’s Fern Garden is a magnificent example of the Victorian obsession with ferneries. Tucked away in a hanging valley, high above the Estate, the full extent of the garden itself wasn’t even discovered until 2009 – and then only by chance.
Heavy snowfall exposed an elaborate fernery planted in a quarry-like area through which the original waterfall stream still flows.
Restoring the garden was painstaking work with no plans, descriptions or pictorial records to work from. Species like the majestic tree ferns (Dicksonia) from New Zealand were added to increase diversity and interest.
In 2022 the restoration work intensified with the help of Pteridologist Julian Reed whose careful guidance and specialist fern knowledge curated the planting of 400 new ferns in the hanging valley. Specifically, the hardy ferns genus Dryopteris and Polystichum flourish in the unique micro-climate the quarry-like valley holds. These two collections have subsequently been awarded the accolade of National Collection status by Plant Heritage. Ongoing horticultural conservation work and the addition of ferns from Julian Reed’s private collection will ensure a secure future for these historic ferns at Canonteign Falls, for future generations to enjoy.
The path to the Victorian Fern Garden leads you into the rocky chasm where you’ll see the 70 metre Lady Exmouth Falls high above you. Climbing through the Secret Garden – an almost entirely enclosed rocky area with caves and the original waterfall – and up the original 90 Victorian steps brings you to the entrance to the fernery.
Situated in a hanging valley, you can wander the paths and lose yourself in Victorian nostalgia. In the 19th Century, “fern fever” gripped the nation and influenced everything from how ladies spent their leisure time, to fashion and design.
Fern hunting was a craze for Victorians in all sections of society and Canonteign’s Fern Garden offers a rich example of the variety and beauty of the ferns they so loved.
The Victorians always believed fairies lived among the ferns. At Canonteign, they can still be seen today. Can you spot our fairies hidden among the gardens? Created by the renowned wire artist Rachel Ducker, they bring the magic of the ferns alive once more. See if you can spot them dancing among the tree ferns and foliage and find the doors to their woodland homes.
Also at home in this ancient landscape is our resident T-rex, Terence. A stunning 11ft willow sculpture, created by Dartmoor artist Katherine Miles, Terence arrived in Canonteign in the summer of 2018. When you descend back down towards the lakes, you will be able to see more of Katherine’s work – a family of deer and a large heron.
What is a National Collection?
In 1978 the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) was concerned about the loss of plant variety within the horticultural world, an organisation known as the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens was born. That name has now been changed to Plant Heritage.
Plant Heritage’s aims are to:
- Encourage the propagation and conservation of cultivated plants in the British Isles;
- Encourage and conduct research into cultivated plants, their origins, their historical and cultural importance and their environments;
- Encourage education of the public in cultivated plant conservation.
- Register these plants in a conservation scheme ensuring they will be a resource for generations to come.
There are strict criteria applied to anyone who wants to become a National Collection holder.
Plant Heritage works closely with other conservation bodies as well as botanic gardens, The National Trust, The National Trust for Scotland, English Heritage, The Royal Horticultural Society and many specialist horticultural societies.