Between the 1840s and 1890s Victorian Britain was gripped by a fern craze. Collecting and cultivating ferns became highly fashionable for people of all classes. In 1855 Charles Kingsley even coined the word pteridomania or fern madness‘.  Where people lacked the space or clean air to grow ferns outdoors they kept them in glazed Wardian cases. As well as native species, enthusiasts cultivated specimens from the Caribbean and throughout the Empire.

 Thanks to its almost perfect growing conditions and abundance of native fern species, Devon housed some of the most notable fern gardens. The landscape also lends itself to the creation of dramatic gothic style grottoes that Victorians found to be the perfect naturalistic showcase for fern collections.

 These design trends influenced the original fern garden at Canonteign. The garden nestled in a small, quarry-like dell through which the original waterfall stream still flows. The physical labour needed to shape the landscape and build the paths and beds came from local silver miners, made redundant when the estates mines became uneconomic.

 As the prosperity of the estate waned during the 20th century the fern garden was lost and forgotten.


In 2009 laurel branches close to an existing smaller fern garden broke under the weight of heavy snow. As branches and damaged undergrowth were cleared, rare fern species were gradually exposed. A forgotten treasure was being uncovered, plant by plant, after decades of neglect.

Restoring the garden was painstaking work as there were no plans, descriptions or pictorial records to work from. Weeds, nettles, laurel and sycamore saplings were removed and the beds and paths were restored. Experts from the Rock Nursery in Chudleigh helped to identify the rarer ferns and suggested additional species to enhance the garden.

Species like the majestic tree ferns (Dicksonia) from New Zealand were added to increase the diversity and interest. We continue to plant new carefully selected varieties as we work towards building a collection of national importance.

 A walk through the garden reveals a snapshot of the variety of shapes and colours to be found among these fascinating plants; from the delicate Adiantum raddianum or Maidenhair ferns to the bold spiky fronds of several Athyrium (or lady fern) species. Some, such as Asplenium scolopendrium Cristatum or Crested Harts Tongue, hardly look like ferns at all.


 Ferns are more adaptable than many people imagine – some will even grow in dry shade. The free draining soil, moist atmosphere, mild microclimate and shade offered by the falls makes Canonteign a near perfect environment for a wide range of fern varieties to thrive.


Fern designs and motifs adorned Victorian pottery, glassware, textiles and wood carvings. The design influence outlived the Victorian era and was prominent in the Arts and Crafts Movement through to around 1910. The humble custard cream biscuit created in 1908 features an embossed fern design to this day.


Ferns appeared around 360 million years ago in the appropriately named Devonian era. Many of the fern families we see today appeared around 50 million years ago – their ancestors could have been trampled beneath the feet of dinosaurs.

The reproductive cycle is different from flowering plants. Adult ferns produce spores, which in the right conditions turn into small plantletscalled gametophytes. These have both male and female reproductive organs which create a single cell sporophyte. This develops into an adult fern while protected within the gametophyte structure.

Fairies among the ferns – look out for Rachel Duckers exquisite wire sculptures. 


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.


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.



Some are hardy whereas others are more delicate so please be careful when searching.

National Collection of Dryopteris
Dryopteris affinis ‘Crispa’
Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Autumn fern’
Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Prolifica’
Dryopteris filix-mas ‘Linearis Polydactyla’
Dryopteris carthusiana
Dryopteris x covoluta
Dryopteris coreano montana
Dryopteris crassirhizoma
Dryopteris cycadina
Dryopteris cristata
Dryopteris dickinsii
Dryopteris dilatata
Dryopteris erythrosora
Dryopteris filix-mas
Dryopteris juxtaposita
Dryopteris pulcherrima
Dryopteris sieboldii
Dryopteris stewartii
Dryopteris subarborea
Dryopteris uniformis
Dryopteris wallichiana
Dryopteris x australis
Dryopteris x complexa

Other Species of Ferns in the Garden
Adiantum raddianum ‘Fragrans’
Adiantum aleuticum ‘Imbricatum’
Asplenium scolopendrium ‘Cristatum’
Asplenium scolopendrium ‘Furcatum’
Asplenium scolopendrium ‘Marginatum’
Athyrium fifilix-femina ‘Lady in red’
Athyrium minimum
Athyrium niponicum ‘Godzilla’
Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’
Athyrium niponicum ‘Regal Red’
Athyrium x Ghost
Cheilanthes argentea
Cyathea Dealbata
Osmunda claytoniana
Osmunda regalis ‘Purpurascens’
Polypodium vulgare ‘Bififidomultififidum’
Polystichum setiferum ‘Bevis’
Cyathea medullaris
Cyathea Cooperi
Dicksonia Squarrosa
Dicksonia antartica
Adiantum aleuticum ‘Imbricatum’
Asplenium scolopendrium ‘Cristatum’
Asplenium scolopendrium ‘Furcatum’ Asplenium scolopendrium ‘Marginatum’
Athyrium filix-femina ‘Lady in red’
Athyrium minimum
Athyrium niponicum ‘Godzilla’
Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’
Athyrium niponicum ‘Regal Red’
Red’ Athyrium x Ghost
Cheilanthes argentea
Cyathea Dealbata ‘Silver fern’
Polydactyla’ Dryopteris lepidopoda
Osmunda claytoniana
Osmunda regalis ‘Purpurascens’
Purpurascens’ Polypodium vulgare ‘Bifidomultifidum’
Adiantum raddianum ‘Fragrans’
National Collection of Polystichum
Polystichum    acrosticoides   
Polystichum    acrosticoides x proliferum     
Polystichum    acrosticoides x proliferum     
Polystichum    aculeatum       
Polystichum    aculeatum       Portia
Polystichum    braunii
Polystichum    china unnamed           
Polystichum    x dycei
Polystichum    proliferum x setiferum            
Polystichum    proliferum       
Polystichum    makinoi           
Polystichum    michroclomis
Polystichum    munitum         
Polystichum    neolobatum    
Polystichum    polyblepharum           
Polystichum    polyblepharum           
Polystichum    setiferum        Acutilobum
Polystichum    setiferum        Congestum
Polystichum    setiferum        Cristatum
Polystichum    setiferum        Cristato Gracilie
Polystichum    setiferum        Cristatopinnulum
Polystichum    setiferum        Smiths Cruciate
Polystichum    setiferum        Dahlem
Polystichum    setiferum        Dahlem
Polystichum    setiferum        Divisilobum 
Polystichum    setiferum        Divisilobum Madam Pattie
Polystichum    setiferum        Divisilobum Hartley
Polystichum    setiferum        Divisilobum Herrenhausen
Polystichum    setiferum        Divisilobum Herrenhausen
Polystichum    setiferum        Divisilobum Iveryanum 
Polystichum    setiferum        Flexuosum
Polystichum    setiferum        Foliosum Kaye 
Polystichum    setiferum        Foliosum 
Polystichum    setiferum        Grandiceps
Polystichum    setiferum        Grandiceps Graveside
Polystichum    setiferum        Hamlet
Polystichum    setiferum        Helena
Polystichum    setiferum        Lineare
Polystichum    setiferum        
Polystichum    setiferum        Medio Deficiens 
Polystichum    setiferum        Multilobum
Polystichum    setiferum        Nantes
Polystichum    setiferum        Othello
Polystichum    setiferum        Perserratum Shroeder 
Polystichum    setiferum        Perserratum Shroeder 
Polystichum    setiferum        Perserratum Shroeder 
Polystichum    setiferum        Perserratum 
Polystichum    setiferum        Plumoso-Divisilobum 
Polystichum    setiferum        Plumoso-Divisilobum Baldwini
Polystichum    setiferum        Plumoso-Divisilobum Bland 
Polystichum    setiferum        Plumoso-Divisilobum Esplan
Polystichum    setiferum        Plumoso-Multilobum Form 
Polystichum    setiferum        Pulcherimum Bevis 
Polystichum    setiferum        Pulcherimum Dreuryi
Polystichum    setiferum        Green Lace
Polystichum    setiferum        Gabeljurgl 
Polystichum    setiferum        Tripinnatum Group Chatto
Polystichum    setiferum        Tripinnatum Group Leinthal Starkes 
Polystichum    setiferum        Tripinnatum Ray Smith 
Polystichum    setiferum        Ramosum Group 
Polystichum    setiferum        Rotundatum
Polystichum    setiferum        Wakleyanum
Polystichum    setiferum        
Polystichum    setiferum xandersonii
Polystichum    setigerum        
Polystichum    squarosum      
Polystichum    tagwanum       
Polystichum    tsussimense     
Polystichum    tripetron         
Polystichum    wilsonii            
Polystichum    woronowii       
Polystichum    xyphophyllum