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Leatherleaf fern — king of the Florida cut foliage industry

In the last year, hurricanes Matthew and Irma re-shaped the Florida cut foliage industry and forever changed the landscape of fern production. But from its humble beginnings in 1904 — thanks to Peter Pierson and a gift of plumosus seeds from Italy — to its current hurricane damage challenges, Florida fern production has grown to become an integral part of the floral industry worldwide.

The plumosus industry experienced steady growth in Florida for four decades and was the staple of the floral industry until JC “Fox” Mayfield slyly began experimenting with a hardy, long-leafed, dark fern that was growing in backyard containers at a Jacksonville home in the 1940s. The plant was leatherleaf and it soon became obvious that this was a great floral item. Word of this new variety of cut foliage quickly spread and, as they say, the rest is history.

LEATHERLEAF-SHADE-CLOTHToday, the new norm for the Florida cut foliage industry is growing the Baker variety of leatherleaf fern under saran shade cloth.Leatherleaf, or Rumohra adiantiformis, is actually native to South America, the Caribbean, southern Africa, Western Indian Ocean islands, Papua New Guinea and Australasia. However, though not native to North America, leatherleaf thrives in the sandy soils of towns like Pierson, Seville and Barberville, FL. New acreage was planted in this corner of central Florida through division of rhizomes.

Leatherleaf expansion really exploded in Florida after severe freezes in 1983 and 1985 wiped out centuries-old citrus groves in the area. As the old groves were cleared, large saran-covered structures were built and leatherleaf production was entering its heyday in Florida.

Growers noticed distinct differences among the fern plants and soon cultivars were identified by the original growers’ names, including Mayfield, Roy Ruth and Baker. Today, all leatherleaf in production can be traced to these early varieties, each with their own signature look and characteristics.

The Baker variety performed well when grown under oak hammock, as was the early practice of production, and under saran shade cloth, which is the new norm in the industry. To promote this hardy variety, many growers sold their fern using the term Baker and the name stuck in some regions of the country more than others. Today, you can identify veterans of the industry when they use this term to order or to sell leather leaf.

Growers are still on the lookout for distinct differences among fern plants in production. By isolating recent leatherleaf mutations, we now have cultivars with distinct fronds that are lacier in appearance. We have given these new products names like Victoria’s Lace, Fancy Fern, Cleopatra and Diamond Fern.

More importantly, thanks to countless other hardworking farmers, leatherleaf production in Florida has survived freezes, water shortages, government regulations, labor crises, foreign competition, and most recently, back-to-back hurricanes, and continues to be an important part of floral designs in the United States and the world.

So, the next time you enjoy leatherleaf fern in a beautiful arrangement, pause to think of an American farmer, and specifically Mr. Mayfield, for their hard work and entrepreneurial spirit. The story of leatherleaf fern and cut foliage production is a classic tale of the American dream realized.

Jana Register is director of sales and marketing at FernTrust, Inc. in Seville, FL. She can be contacted at jana@ferntrust.com.