Expert in Gold Bar calls ferns the most overlooked plants

  • By Debra Smith Herald Writer
  • Wednesday, August 6, 2008 4:15pm
  • Life

A visit with Judith Jones is always memorable.

Mine involved rare plants, a carnivorous bog in a sarcophagus, pterodactyls and a musical with hula-hooping squirrels.

Jones, 59, is the owner of Fancy Fronds, a one-woman nursery in Gold Bar that specializes in probably the most underappreciated of Northwest plants, the fern. In plant circles she’s an indie rock star: a self-taught plantswoman who introduced half a dozen ferns to the plant-buying public.

Every year she organizes the Fronderosa Frolic, an event that has been called a Woodstock for gardeners and a horticultural orgy. At this little-advertised event, specialty nurseries come together for a weekend of music and plant revelry.

Her nursery friends bring all kinds of rare and unusual plants. The event is open to the public. It’s set for this weekend, rain or shine, at Jones’ Gold Bar home nursery.

Even if you don’t know Judith Jones’ name you might remember her from a visit to the Northwest Flower and Garden Show. At a haute garden show, a woman in a hummingbird suit gets noticed.

Jones brings a taxonomist’s exacting smarts and P.T. Barnum’s showmanship — complete with costumes — to her garden show displays.

She has designed gardens or given lectures since the first show. For the past decade, Jones and plant buddy Vanca Lumsden have teamed up to create brain-tripping gardens: an underwater seascape with Neptune and his throne, a graveyard with carnivorous plants leering out of a sarcophagus, and a prehistoric dinosaur scene straight out of Jurassic Park.

Next year they’ll team with Aw Pottery for a garden inspired by the “The King and I.” She plans to wear a ball gown, complete with hoops.

They’ve twice taken home the garden show’s top award, no small feat at one of the world’s top garden events. At past shows, Jones also has donned costumes and read to children, and composed musicals — including one with a rapping blue jay, a hula-hooping squirrel and a song titled “Banana Sluggy” set to the tune of Sesame Street’s “Rubber Ducky.”

Jones isn’t sure how she emerged from her serious, scientific-minded family. The daughter of a doctor and a medical technologist, she grew up in Arizona debating the origin of words and everything else over the dinner table.

She opened Fancy Fronds in 1977, a tiny operation with plants grown in her basement under lights. She packed her first mail orders on her front porch in 1982.

In 1995 Jones moved herself and her business to five acres outside Gold Bar. Here she runs the mail order nursery from three greenhouses. The wooded property against the river smells like summer vacation and her log-style home, pleasantly dusty and lived-in, is bursting with antique, claw-footed Victorian furniture.

All the props from past garden shows adorn her home and property: tombstones here, a pterodactyl nest in the trees there.

People shouldn’t put too much stock in what the experts believe, she said. She encourages her customers to choose what they like, not what their landscape designers like.

“I’m the kind of a person who would put a Picasso under the bed and a drawing of a 5-year-old that I cared about on the wall.”

Today, Jones knows more about ferns than probably anyone in the Northwest, an area that’s produced a crop of serious fern growers. Jones has corrected more than one expert who has mangled the Latin name or mistaken one fern for another. Longtime friend Lumsden described her as “damn close to the best in the world.”

“Judith is well-known among the world of fern people but a prophet is without honor in their own country,” Lumsden said. “People here in the Pacific Northwest don’t understand what a real treasure she is.”

She has an eye for finding new ferns, Lumsden said, not easy for plants which have a reputation for their similarity.

“It’s difficult to find them,” Lumsden said. “It’s having the eye to see it. If you have a crop of sporelings and they all sort of look alike, it’s hard to have your eye attuned to what’s different.”

Jones said she’s just a bit more concerned about properly identifying plants than most growers.

She receives little, if any, financial benefit from her discoveries, Lumsden said.

Jones says she hates it when garden periodicals label all the perennials in a photo but ignore the ferns. She dreams of writing her own book and labeling only the ferns.

It’s too bad they’re overlooked because ferns are some of the easiest plants to care for, she said.

She doesn’t understand why no one gets it.

“They’re amazing,” she said. “I’m a Libra, a very symmetrical person, and there’s so much symmetry. They’re fascinating to watch unfurl.”

Spring is her favorite time. The ferns awaken and their fronds began to uncurl like super slow-moving party favors. She hovers so close to the plants “sometimes I think I breathe them right out of the crowns.”

Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or

Taking a swing at immersion reporting

I’ve left interviews with headaches, heartaches and stomachaches, but never with a concussion — until I visited Judith Jones’ Gold Bar nursery.

To be fair, it was my fault.

A family friend she calls Peter Pan installed a 50-foot rope swing among the trees on her five acres near the river.

He told me if I just believed, I wouldn’t hit the Douglas fir on the other side of the clearing.

Remembering something from school about a reporter immersing herself in the subject matter, I climbed a 25-foot ladder to the top of a nearby tree platform, grabbed the swing and swung … straight into that tree.

Judith dusted me off and fed me juice and crackers. Then she serenaded me with “George of the Jungle” — my name inserted in the appropriate places. It felt like I was thinking through pea soup the rest of the afternoon.

She tells me she may ask Peter Pan to put in a zip line.

Then she invited me to the Fronderosa Frolic.

I wouldn’t miss it, but I’ll probably pass on another ride on that swing.

Debra Smith

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