Back in the 1880s, you couldn’t call yourself a serious gardener if you didn’t have a fern house. Botanic gardens and wealthy estates all had large ferneries, places of cool respite where ladies in voluminous white and their besuited companions walked along moss-edged paths beneath the lace-like fronds of tree ferns. You can still see remnants of the fashion in the public gardens of the era. Bathurst’s Machattie Park and Cook Park in Orange both have lovely little ferneries, but the best example in the country is at Rippon Lea, in Elsternwick in Melbourne.

The fernery there was built by Frederick Sargood in the 1880s. Sargood made his money, lots of it, in soft furnishings, which suggests he had a good eye for fashion and design. You get a sense of his passion for both ferns and fashion in his fernery. It’s grand in scale and naturalistic in style. Workers with shovels dug out a gully nearly 40 metres long and installed pipes to drain it. Paths curve up and down around rocky outcrops so that the whole expanse cannot be seen at once, adding a sense of mystery to the space.

Australia's best example of a fernery is at Rippon Lea, in Elsternwick in Melbourne.

Australia’s best example of a fernery is at Rippon Lea, in Elsternwick in Melbourne. Credit:Robin Powell

Unlike most 19th century ferneries, the one at Rippon Lea was framed in steel, which means it’s still standing. The 150-year old drainage system didn’t fare as well, but a public appeal last year raised funds for its restoration, and the fernery is once again a magical place of more than 100 different varieties of native and exotic ferns. Light falls through the slats of the arched roof and the fringes of tree ferns to stripe the lower-growing ferns and cordylines, and make prints on the paths.

The fernery personifies the highpoint of our Golden Age of Gardening. People are never going to those lengths again really.

Justin Buckley, garden manager for National Trust Victoria

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