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Full Bloom: Ferns in Elaine May's "A New Leaf"

Through a botanist's quest to discover a new variety of fern, May's masterpiece asks: what's in a name?
Patrick Holzapfel
A New Leaf
Ivana Miloš, A New Fern Is a Fern Is a Fern (2022), monotype and nature print on paper.
She was close
And she held me very tightly
'Til I asked awfully politely
“Please, can I call you her name?”
She said, “I'm really not supposed to, but yes
You can call me anything you want”
—“Cornerstone,” Arctic Monkeys
It’s a fitting coincedence that Nicolaus Ingemarsson, who lived and worked as a pastor and amateur botanist around 1700 in Småland, a province in southern Sweden, adopted a nickname, Nils, and a new Latin surname, Linnaeus. This ambivalent relationship to names continued with his son, the famous botanist Carolus, who himself was referred to as Carl von Linné. Linnaeus the younger became the so-called father of taxonomy, famous for classifying plants. He created the naming system that uses two names to describe a particular species: genus and species. A cinnamon fern, for example, is called an Osmunda cinnamomea
Since the appearance of Carl Linnaeus’ arguably most important work, Species Plantarum (1753), his system has been improved considerably, but it’s safe to say that he is one of those thinkers of the 18th century who laid the foundation for an ever-present way of looking at the world, one which was created by the male species. “To speak the name is to control the thing,” wrote Ursula K. Le Guin in her short story “The Rule of Names.” It’s the way of lists and names and pigeonholing. It’s the way of power. Whoever names something aims at owning it. Sometimes a thing is named in order to get a grip on something that would escape otherwise; sometimes it is named because someone literally wants to feel in power. In cinema, we are very familiar with this desire to pin something down—but not so much when it comes to the life of plants, whose evolutionary power structures are much more difficult to understand.
We leave this field to botanists like Henrietta Lowell, the very, very clumsy protagonist of Elaine May’s adorable debut feature A New Leaf (1971), played by the director herself. Henrietta’s expertise lies with ferns: she is a pteridologist, a niche field relating to a plant literally growing in ecological niches. She works as a teacher, does field work, and writes monographs. There couldn’t be a more fitting plant than the fern, or Polypodiopsida, for Henrietta, who at first appears to prefer hiding in the shadows. She trembles in the softest of breezes and even looks a bit like a fern, with her thin arms reaching more inward then outward.
Ferns, among the oldest land plants still in existence, are vascular plants, meaning that they reproduce by spores instead of seeds or flowers. You can find their reproductive organs, called sori, on the underside of their fronds. The cluster of small oval or oblong shapes builds over a number of weeks. They look like tiny insects hiding from the sun, or like diamonds or some disease. Whatever this plant resembles, you have to know where to look in order to discover its beauty. That is certainly also true of Henrietta, who hides her sexuality like one of the more than 10,000 known extant species of ferns. Her dream is to discover a new variety of fern. She wants her own fern, a fern that would be named after her. At least that’s what she tells Henry Graham, played by Walter Matthau in one of his best roles. Henrietta and Henry, playfully subverting these systems of classification—so much for names.
Henry is a wastrel of the highest order. When he has to declare bankruptcy his butler gives him the idea to marry into money in order to maintain his extravagant lifestyle. Since Henrietta is not only an introverted, isolated botanist but also rich, she seems the perfect target for Henry’s aspirations. However, that’s not enough for the rather ponderous seducer, as he also wants to kill her so that he does not have to give up his solitary ways. Naturally, Henry has to learn about and fake interest in botany and ferns in order to conquer the heart of the woman he quickly begins to loathe. Henry likes to control things. Henrietta can’t control things. She is not made for a world of classification, even if she deals with it quite successfully in her professional life. The servants in her mansion exploit her, and whenever she gets carried away by her sincere passion for plants, she puts herself in incredible danger. In one of the most memorable scenes in the film, Henrietta leans over a cliff in order to reach a fern growing under the rock. Henry, in the foreground, studies a book on poison, reflecting on possible ways to kill her and thus missing the easiest of all opportunities right before his eyes. 
In her adaptation of Jack Ritchie’s short story “The Green Heart,”which first appeared in Alfred Hitchcocks Mystery Magazine in March 1963, May aimed to get everything right. In order to give A New Leaf more accuracy when it comes to botany, May worked with Dr. Dominick Basile, an expert on mosses and ferns. The Columbia professor even supplied the botanical equipment seen in the film and he gave advice as to some parts of the script. But as so often in film history, May’s admirable perfectionism also meant her film was taken away from her later. Her three-hour cut has never been screened.
When Henry first talks to Henrietta about botany, he asks her what would happen if she actually discovered a new species of fern. She answers that she would be listed as the discoverer and the species would be named after her. “It’s a kind of immortality, isn’t it?” he asks her and she nods in agreement, but stating that it’s also a bit presumptuous to hope for that. It is indeed. Vanity is an issue in the business of plant classification, as it is in all classifications, but it’s a minor one. The actual issue is that those classifications (as useful and necessary as they are) also distort our relationship with nature. Linnaeus, or whatever he is called, came from a world in which people tried to conquer, to tame nature. Nowadays, we have to think about different forms of approaching what surrounds us. We are not in power. We have never been. On the other hand, for the sake of our existence on this planet (as long as it still lasts), it’s essential not to forget the common names of what surrounds us. Many of us are no longer capable of differentiating between individual types of trees, flowers, or even birds. We’ve so long abstracted the world around us that we have simplified it to the point of ignoring it.
Is there a way of naming that is not a way of taking control? When Henrietta really finds a new species of a tropical tree fern on her honeymoon, she decides to name it after Henry. She calls it Alsophila (a genus of tree ferns) Ignocardium (most likely a play on words referring to an ignorant heart) grahami (named after Henry Graham). She gives him a necklace in which a frond of his fern is protected in a token made of glass. Here lies a new approach at naming things. It’s no longer about immortality or classification, nor about vanity or power. Here, giving a name is an act of love. 
So here is a very short list of some fern species, given their common name for your consideration: Hart’s tongue fern, sea spleenwort fern, narrow buckler fern, bracken fern, pillwort fern, ostrich fern. Find them, look at them, study them. Don’t classify them but carefully touch them, smell them; listen to what they have to say. 
Full Bloom is a series, written by Patrick Holzapfel and illustrated by Ivana Miloš, that reconsiders plants in cinema. Directors have given certain flowers, trees or herbs special attention for many different reasons. It’s time to give them the credit they deserve and highlight their contributions to cinema, in full bloom.


Full BloomColumnsIllustrationsElaine May
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