An accidental fernery at Susannah Place

The name ‘The Rocks’ derives from the jagged sandstone ledges that define the area. In 1844 the four terrace houses known as Susannah Place was built into one of these sandstone cliffs in Gloucester Street. In the basement of 60 Gloucester Street the remnants of the original kitchen survive: the fireplace where the wrought iron stove once stood as well as the coal grate. These are signs of what was once a busy, productive space with a warm hearth for cooking.

By the early 1900s, the basement kitchen fell into disuse with a more convenient kitchen set up on the ground floor. These days the door to the basement always remains closed; we don’t take any of our tours into this particular space so most of the time it stays quiet and still, completely untouched. Interestingly, a small patch of vibrant green Australian native Maiden Hair Fern, Adiantum aethiopicum, grows happily in the spot where the sun shines each morning. The combination of good natural light and damp conditions free from droughts has made this basement into its own little glasshouse fernery.

Walking around The Rocks, it is clear that Maiden Hair Fern is right at home in this sandstone landscape. The fern grows in volume all through the Argyle Cut and up the Argyle Stairs and in any nook and crevice it can find. The spores from the fern float through the wind and settle in places where it can be left alone with just the right amount of moisture and light.

If the whole of the colony possessed the same temperature as is found in the neighbourhood of Sydney, the bush-house would be ample for the cultivation of ferns and lycopods”

The Sydney Mail, Saturday, May 12, 1888

It’s incredible to think of what the ancestors of these ferns may have been present for. Did they cling to the sandstone ridges before white settlement when the Gadigal people walked through the place they called Tallawoladah to the water to collect oysters?1 Did the fern dance gently in the breeze in 1843 when the convicts on chain gangs began chipping away at the sandstone to excavate the Argyle Cut?2

Despite the ways The Rocks has changed over time, the Maiden Hair Fern has remained steadfast to its landscape. The delicate and soft plant is surprisingly hardy and will reclaim the city and sandstone. The fern will find a way to grow where it belongs. And so, in what was once someone’s urban kitchen this fern has found its home once more amongst its beloved sandstone cliffs.

  1. The Big Dig archaeological site,
  2. John Toon, "Sydney: Restoring Australia's Historic Core", Built Environment (1978-) 12, no. 3 (1986): 153
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Philippa Vaughan

Philippa Vaughan

Visitor Interpretation Officer

Philippa is a Visitor Interpretation Officer (VIO) based at Susannah Place Museum. Having completed her Masters of Food Studies she has a particular interest in domestic history, particularly the way we can understand people and communities through food.One of her greatest treasures is a secondhand 1974 edition of the Margaret Fulton Cookbook belonging to someone named Betty, which came complete with food spatters, newspaper clippings and decades of handwritten notes.When she isn’t taking tours at Susannah Place she can be found fluffing the 1840s style mattress, watering the pot plants or dusting the corner store lolly jars.

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