This is the fern that no gardening tatter can resist, and yes, it really is called The Tatting Fern! The botanical name is Athyrium filix-femina 'Frizelliae'. It has a dainty arching appearance, height 12-18 inches and it prefers moist and shady conditions. As you can see, the small alternating leaves are different from a typical fern and, with a bit of imagination, are rather like multi-picoted rings.
The Tatting Fern first appeared in Victorian times when both ferns and tatting were all the rage. In fact, it was discovered by a certain Mrs Frizell in 1857 in County Wicklow, Ireland, and the fern was named after her. She found it on her property where "It grew between two boulders so fast and with so little soil, that it was with great difficulty my husband removed it." The date is interesting because tatting was shown at the Dublin Exhibition of 1853 (see Pam Palmer's "Tatting", Shire Publications Ltd). That was only 4 years before Mrs Frizell discovered her fern, and Dublin is very near to County Wicklow. Perhaps Mrs Frizell went to a show just like us, became enthused by the tatting there, and then saw the resemblance between it and the fern.
However, there is a darker side to tatting in Ireland in the 19th century. It was not only a hobby for the well-to-do. It was also one of the lacecrafts, like the better known Irish crochet, taught to people desperately needing to find a new way of earning money as a result of the Potato Famine. The tatting exhibited in Dublin in 1853 came from the small town of Ardee, County Louth, about 30 miles to the north of the city. Here Sophie Ellis, daughter of the rector, taught the local women and children to tat in order to make a living. It caught on, and they continued to make and sell their tatting for many years. Today we can still see an example of Ardee tatting in the form of a wide border, made in 1880, which is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. There is a photograph of it in Pam Palmer's history (see above) and in Lady Katharin Hoare's book "The Art of Tatting".
What a lot to come out of one little plant! If you are interested in owning one yourself, you could track it down via the RHS page on the tatting fern (Athyrium filix-femina 'Frizelliae'), which lists suppliers. The cut fronds last well in water and with some flowers make a pretty Victorian posy, with the vase placed upon a tatted doily, of course!
Ruth Broadfield sent us this picture of a Tatting Fern growing in her garden: