The title might sound like a mysterious and, frankly, academic question but the significance may become clear in this article.
In the Pteridologist magazine in 2000 Patricia Watt mentioned that Anthony Parsons (AP) was honoured by having a fern, Gymnogramma chrysophylla parsonii , named for him. This is a Victorian name, no longer in use, so it was a bit of a mystery as to what this fern could be. No records have yet come to light from this once renowned gardener or from family archives that would shed light on what this fern looked like, or why AP was honoured by having it named for him. Plants cultivars are often named for the first person to come across or cultivate the unique variation. The usual internet search did not throw much light on this as there seemed to be no readily available Victorian taxonomy to modern plant names translator.
Our friend Peter Blake of the Pteridological Society had a look at some historic books that he was familiar with and has found the modern name of the original. He feels it is a cultivar of Pityrogramma austro-americana, a small fern from central and southern Americas only suitable for hothouse growing but difficult to make thrive. Part of a group that have glorious golden or silver powder effect on young frond stipe, or stalk, and later a complete golden covering on the reverse of each mature frond, in the case of P. austro-americana.
We have found the following enticing information. In the 1850s AP was a well respected gardener, cultivator and exhibitor of both his fruit and flowers. In the 1860s he continued showing and added ferns, particularly his Pityrogramma calamelanos parsonii. He was mentioned in the ‘ Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener in 1865 for showing and gaining First Class Certificates.
Benjamin Samuel Williams of Victoria and Paradise Nurseries, Upper Holloway, London, wrote a book in 1868 called ‘Select Ferns and Lycopods: British and Exotic’. It is a comprehensive instruction book and catalogue of ferns no doubt intended to encourage visits to his nursery and on page 140 he says:
“G chrysophyla parsonii – A most beautiful variety, obtained from seed (spore, Ed.) in this country. It retains all the beauty of the species, and, in addition, the apex of the fronds and every pinnae is densely and beautifully tasselled. This plant should be in every collection of tropical Ferns.”
George Schneider’s “Book of Choice Ferns” , 1893 describes Gymnogramma calamelanos parsonii as “A beautifully crested form, of comparatively dwarf dimensions, with fronds seldom exceeding 1ft. in length, and covered on their under-side with a beautiful dark yellow powder. They are of a very upright habit, their extremity being formed into a broad but finely-divided tassel, while each leaflet terminates in a crest, becoming smaller as they reach the base of the fronds. This variety is very variable in its mode of fructification, some plants producing fronds with more or less flattened crests. It is very liable to damping-off through excessive or accumulation of moisture in the crests of the fronds during the winter, when it must be kept in a particularly dry place, and as close to the light as possible.”
Peter has seen the un-crested Pityrogramma austro-americana in his travels to India and Ceylon as well as growing them in his own glass-house. He mentions that they are hard to grow but, as I have seen, are gloriously yellow stipe when young.
So in conclusion, it appears our Victorian gardener here at Danesbury Fernery was either lucky or brilliant at cultivation and was one of the few people recorded then or since to have cultivated the Gymnogramma chrysophylla parsonii. We now believe it to be based on Pityrogramma austro-americana, which if anyone can find a crested version should again be named for Anthony Parsons.