flowers a-zsarah from blossom and branch

u is for umbrella fern

by SarahB

Greetings, flower alphabeteers! Admittedly, “u” was a letter that truly tested my creative mettle. I considered all manner of cop-outs (Ursula roses and the like). Ultimately, I realized that a really lovely and special green would fit the bill — that is why “u” is for umbrella fern.

The term “fern” applies to over 12,000 species of plants. Even though we tend to imagine ferns growing exclusively in dark, moist locations, they can actually be found in a wide range of habitats, including creeping between desert rocks and floating in bodies of water. Ferns have an ancient history, and fossils have been found with encased ferns dating back 360 million years — mind blowing! Ferns are mostly grown for ornamental purposes but are used for food in some cultures (the fiddleheads, for example) and have even been shown to leach toxins from contaminated soils. Their consumption, however, comes with some controversy — studies have indicated that ferns may actually contribute to higher levels of stomach cancer in some cultures with high fern intakes.

I happen to love the fad from the Victorian era of collecting live fern species and using fern motifs in a variety of decorative arts. My favorites are the framed, printed images from pteridology books (pteridology is the study of ferns and the Victorian fern craze was referred to as “pteridomania”). In this era, so many people were growing ferns indoors that a tailored glass case was developed to maintain high humidity and low air pollutants just for this purpose: the Wardian Case (learn more about the Wardian Case here).

In perfect harmony with the recent hurricane passing through New York City and our soggy tropical storm status, I decided I would demonstrate an arrangement using these green “umbrellas,” though I was hoping this post (as we approach the end of summer) would be more along the lines of needing the “umbrella” to provide shade :) Follow me after the jump for a simple and quirky how-to. — Sarah

The full post continues after the jump . . .

I selected a low and wide container with a thin opening. The plan is to create a low and tight arrangement with vibrant flowers that will serve as a gorgeous canvas for the fern.

As you may know, I love celosia (“brain flower” or “coxcomb”) — the hues and textures make me crazy (in a good way). When constructing a modern arrangement or trying to create a solid base for yourself, celosia does the trick. Another late summer floral that would work here would be sunflowers. Choose any mix of florals that will be sturdy and have a clean surface.


Dahlia! Just because they are coming into their high season (and we are nowhere near “d”), I thought to include these fan favorites. Continue building the arrangement low and tight, with a flower-on-flower look. Be sure to strip all foliage from these blooms, and because you will be using a thin vase, periodically check the water for quantity and freshness. Re-water as needed.


And then came the ranunculus. Although traditionally a no-no in design circles, I adore the combination of red and pink with florals. The shapes and textures here remind me of the Marimekko (Finnish design company from the 1960s and 1970s, currently enjoying a resurgence at Crate & Barrel!) prints in my childhood bedroom.




Fern three ways! I 1) tucked the fern into the collar of the vase under the blooms, 2) placed some fern up high like a tropical drink umbrella and 3) pinched the fern leaves together and nestled them in one shock down among the blooms. Suddenly, we are transported to the tropics. Or Finland?


Don’t be afraid to try a new technique with a traditional element like a green — use it like a flower (as I did here) if it suits you.

My hope is that you use these concepts as a guide while sourcing your own flower choices that are seasonal and affordable. Your local bodega, supermarket or flower shop will almost always have the basics, such as roses, hydrangea and even carnations! My conviction is that any flower can be designed into greatness. It just requires a little imagination :) Join me back here in two weeks when “v” will be for . . .

Suggested For You


  • Hi Sarah. You have such an amazing gift. Thanks you for sharing it with us.
    p.s. I also love red and pink together!

  • Gorgeous arrangement. Only during the Victorian period would there have been a fern craze, along with a specialized term to describe it. I _love_ that era!

  • Where can you find umbrella ferns? They are gorgeous and I always could use another fern in the house! :) I pick up usual ferns when I see them in stores but haven’t seen this one…

  • Hi All! @lizabeth, I have seen umbrella fern at a few nurseries, but often they simply have more generic fern versions. Sometimes, a nursery can special order plants for you if you plan to get them in quantity. It is definitely worth asking! Enjoy!

  • Wait, no – found it: Sticherus flabellatus. In case anyone else was wondering. :o)