Ex situ cultivation

Plants have been grown ex situ, or away from their natural habitats, in gardens and displays for hundreds of years. Yet, for most of that time, transport of exotic plants was a limiting factor, and plants that could be grown from long-lived seeds or roots had the best chance of being cultivated ex situ. In the case of ferns, however, studies of the mode of reproduction and the elusive "fernseed" did not begin until the 1790s and stages in the alternation of generations were not fully elucidated until the mid-nineteenth century.

Transport of whole plants for growth ex situ was revolutionized by the protected environment of the Wardian case. It was in pursuit of fern cultivation in the 1830s that Dr. Nathaniel Ward developed the case that bears his name, observing that his ferns fared better in the polluted air of London when they were protected in closed containers (Ward, 1852). The Wardian case gave further momentum to fern collecting in the midst of an era in the mid-nineteenth century known as "Pteridomania" or the Victorian Fern Craze. As an understanding of fern propagation was just beginning, most ferns were wild collected, and in some cases, as in the case of what is now perhaps Britain's rarest fern, Woodsia ilvensis, species were severely depleted from the wild, threatening the plants with extirpation (Lusby et al., 2002).

The Fern Craze, however, gave impetus to the display of ferns, and notable collections were assembled at several botanical gardens and displayed in conservatories, gardens, stumperies, and rooteries. These were to provide the basis for collections that aided research and maintained ex situ fern germplasm. Present-day botanical gardens continue to play a unique role in ex situ fern and lyco-phyte conservation, and have the capacity to maintain collections, to propagate rare species, and to preserve germplasm worldwide (e.g., Theuerkauf, 1993; Goel, 2002), and some house particularly rare, old, or unique specimens. There are also some personal collections of ferns of high quality that can provide valuable information on the conditions required for growing these plants ex situ (Ward-law, 2002). Although ex situ cultivation of ferns is limited by space and resources in the number of genotypes that can be maintained, it can provide protection for individuals of particularly rare species, as well as serve as a resource for educating both researchers and the general public on the growth and development of these species.

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