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Here on the Garden Route, as with most things, our floral bunches are much better than everyone else's! And why's that? Well, our hills are resplendent with pretty proteas and other fine fynbos flowers, but that's not all. It is with our ferns that we can truly claim originality, for ferns are fabulous things, and our verdant forests are brimming with them.

But: "What, pray tell, do ferns have to do with flower bouquets?"

Well, next time you buy or receive a bunch, take a closer look at its components and you will discover all sorts of foliage and fillers in among the blooms. There may be grassy things and twiggy things; crispy things and wispy things - but behind them all, like curtains on a theatre stage, you will usually find some ferns.

What's so special about them? Well, for starters, they are exceedingly ancient plants, predating almost all other terrestrial life-forms on the planet. They were here long before our ancestor, the first fish, decided to come up on dry land and they also kept the dinosaurs (and numerous other animals) satiated for eons. But what's really great about ferns is that they're still here today, lending their Jurassic Park ambience to our Garden Route forests.

Have you ever given a thought to how a fern frond finds its way into a floral bouquet? No, probably not. We at CRL hadn't either, but then we visited Tsitsikamma's Forest Ferns and Fernery Co, where we met Frans Gerber, an entrepreneur, Johannesburg escapee, and owner of the biggest foliage company in South Africa. And 'Wow'- what a surprising mother of an operation it is.

Every morning, come rain or shine, a cavalcade of satellite-tagged trucks, each packed with professional fern-picking work gangs, winds its way up from the Storms River Fernery HQ and out into the surrounding pine plantations, where the wild ferns grow. Once there the men and women begin their work, flitting among the foliage like pixies on a mission, and, within hours of first light, neat little bunches of grade-A ferns begin piling up alongside the forestry roads.

This greenery is then swiftly transported to the packing shed back at Fernery Central, where ladies wait beneath an aircraft hangar ceiling, with twitching fingers and narrowed eyes. Any blemish or impurity is noted, sneered at and then the offending frond is contemptuously hurled upon the reject pile. Those that do make the grade are sealed, packed and then transported to the airport in Port Elizabeth or Cape Town, and, within 24 hours, they reach the client in Europe.

It's an efficient beehive of an operation, which is monitored, military-style, from a big flat-screen television which hangs upon the office wall.

Annually, about 27,000 hectares of pine plantation forests are combed for fern products by around 160 staff members. There are onsite fern nurseries that cultivate and grow ornamental plants for local landscapers and garden centres; and there is also a luxury hotel, a restaurant, an interpretation centre and world-famous hiking trail (The Dolphin Trail). Frans also has plans to open several offshoot companies in the near future.

And all this from an indigenous plant that grows so prolifically that it is actually considered to be a pestilent weed by some, However, things were not always so grand and efficient. As with many success stories, Forest Ferns and The Fernery grew from very humble, er, roots...

During the first half of the '80s, Frans lived both in London and Jo'burg, working the fruit, veg and flower markets for a multinational shipping company.

"It was all about mangos, avocados and lichees back then," he tells GRL while pottering around with a giant tree fern. "But many of my associates were dealing in cut-flower bouquets, and through them I learnt that ferns are an integral part of the product. Demand was high, and folk began asking me if I could source some fern exporters from South Africa instead of Costa Rica. That's when I saw my opportunity."

And so Frans and his wife Meg decided to move their family back to South Africa. They took up residence on an old family farm in Tsitsikamma (the site of today's Fernery HQ). At first there were no roads, no electricity and no hot water.

"We even had to climb a tree to see where we might build our packing factory."

But with hard graft, family unity and perseverance, they built themselves a country home and a fern-processing facility.

"In those days, we would drive all over the Garden Route in search of private land owners who had indigenous forests on their properties. We then drew up agreements to buy their ferns once we had trained their staff on how to find and pick them. It was very hard work. Starting at six in the morning, I often wouldn't get back home with a bakkie full of fronds until seven at night. But it kept us afloat, and eventually we were awarded a contract to collect ferns on government land. That was when Forest Ferns was born."

But then potential disaster struck in the form of government ecologists, who deemed the harvesting of ferns from indigenous forests to be unsustainable.

"In the end, this was a good thing though," says Frans, smiling. "It forced us to seek out alternatives and to change the way in which we work. That's when we discovered that pine plantations were a gold mine, and had more ferns in them than the indigenous forests. Now after 20 years, we know exactly how to harvest our product sustainably,and what's more, we are an environmentally friendly company - we don't even need to use pesticides."

Frans has a certain gleam in his eye, a sort of Bill Gates fervour that has made him the man he is today; an entrepreneur who saw potential in a 'weed' and then plucked an empire from beneath the trees.

"But what really makes me happy" he tells GRL, "is waking up everyday here on the Garden Route. That's a real privilege. And I feel even luckier because I found these ferns. They really are the most romantic of plants.

"But you'll have to excuse me now," he tells us politely. "I need to go; but do help yourself to a meal in the restaurant, and, if you see any potted plants that catch your eye, they're all for sale, you know."

And with that, another motorcade of shrub-laden trucks trundles up to the packing shed - and out bustle the quality control ladies, Frans Gerber, with his gleaming eyes, among them. And, thanks to all their efforts, there will always be lovely bouquets to brighten our birthdays, cheer up our bedsides and enliven our tombstones.

Viva la fern!


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