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My grandfather’s fern: A living legacy

By Lane DeGregory
S.J. Camfield, left, and his brother, Gray, grew up with the family fern and now keep it protected.

MIAMI - When my sister moved from Miami to Vermont last summer, she took our grandmotherís rocking chair and another grandmotherís crocheted doilies.

But she had to leave behind our familyís most prized possession.

For 50 years, through four generations, it has been passed around Florida, lived with all my momís siblings, survived home sales and hurricanes.

Itís not a coin collection or fancy china or heirloom jewels. We have something we all treasure even more. And refuse to let die:

My grandfatherís fern.

"It wonít survive the winter," said my sister. "Who can take it?"

The staghorn is huge, at least 300 pounds. It swung from a wall in her back yard, cradled in a hammock of thick chains. Itís antler-like leaves cupped to the sun.

My grandfather Arthur had brought it home one day, in the late 1960s. My Uncle S.J. remembers being in middle school, watching his dad nail a 6-inch square of wood onto a palm tree, with a spindly fern clinging tight.

"It had like three leaves on it," said S.J. Camfield, now 59. "It was weird, he was so excited."

My grandfather died when S.J. and his brother, Gray, were teenagers. Eventually, my grandmother had to sell their pink house in Coral Gables. She left behind the aloe, bromeliads and orchids.

But she insisted my uncles untie the fern, which was now as big as a medicine ball, and take it to my auntís house in Coral Springs.

"The only thing of your father I can keep alive," she said.

***

Each time I told friends about the fern, they nodded knowingly Ė and shared their own stories:

Rose bushes dug up from a great auntís yard in South Carolina, now flowering in Florida; lambsí tail from a deceased motherís house in Cape Cod, tenderly folded into paper towels and brought back to Gulfport; spiky snake plants unearthed from a grandmotherís house in Ohio, smuggled across state lines and re-planted in St. Petersburg.

All these memories, still growing, giving, long after the gardeners had gone.

***

When my aunt moved from Coral Springs to Atlanta in the early 1980s, she split my grandfatherís fern into three balls Ė each so big two men had to hoist them. One part went to a friendís house nearby; another to Atlanta with my aunt; and the third to my youngest uncle, Gray, who had just bought his first house in Jupiter.

They lost touch with the friend. Atlanta was too cold; my auntís piece of the staghorn died. But Grayís flourished. In the thick leaves, mocking birds built a nest.

When my uncle moved from Jupiter to Melbourne in the late 1990s, the fern went with him. But when he moved into an oceanfront condo, there was too much salt spray, no trees big enough to hold it. So he drafted two friends and drove it to Miami, where my sister took custody.

My niece fed the fern bananas. It grew even more.

"I hate to leave it behind," my sister said. "Itís been a part of our family ever since I can remember."

Gray stepped up to take the staghorn again, this time to his new home in Vero Beach, which he shares with his fiancť and her children.

On a sultry summer day, he and S.J. showed up at my sisterís house in Miami with a friend theyíd known since high school Ė who remembered the fern! The three men sweated for almost an hour and emerged, tangled in chains, pushing the plant in a wheelbarrow to a rented pick-up.

"Take good care of it!" I called. "Let us know how itís doing!"

Family members worried: Would there be enough shade? Enough time to mist it, with my uncleís new family to take care of? Was the plant too old, or fragile, to travel?

My sister and her family flew back to Florida for Thanksgiving. Our uncles couldnít join us, but after weíd finished the key lime pie, S.J. texted a photo.

Shiny green leaves surrounded a huge, light brown ball, swaying from a palm tree. And below, these words: The Staghorn Lives!

Do you have a family plant thatís been passed down through generations? Send us a photo. Tell us your story. Help keep that history alive.

Contact Lane DeGregory at [email protected] Follow @LaneDeGregory.