Of all the many passions and crazes in 19th-century gardening and natural history, none was as long-lasting or as wide-reaching as Pteridomania, or fern madness.
Authors urged everyone to go on a fern hunt or foray, whether for just a couple of hours, or for a few weeks. Because the study of natural history was considered to be a worthy activity, no one could be accused of wasting his or her time in pursuing it. The Phytologist wrote approvingly of Moore’s Handbook of British Ferns that “it is well calculated to coax the idler into an agreeable improving occupation.” But, aside from questions of morality, the fundamental reasons why fern hunting was so popular a pastime are still relevant today.
Crucially, such an interest gives a sense of purpose to life, especially in the worst of times. Focusing one’s attention – to the exclusion of all else – on a hunt for something distracts one’s mind from everyday stress and troubles. In addition, fern hunts usually entailed a ramble “over and through the fairest of hills and glens, where Nature is at her loveliest.” And in 1899 Frances Parsons wrote: “Surely there is no such preventive of insomnia, no such cure for nervousness or morbid introspection as an absorbing out-door interest. Body and mind alike are invigorated to a degree that cannot be appreciated by one who has not experienced the life-giving power of some such close and loving contact with nature.” British Pteridological Society member John Gott, who died in 1931 aged 96, “maintained that the secret of his vigorous health and long life was the regular out-door exercise which he obtained in the pursuit of his hobby of fern-hunting.”
The Gardeners’ Chronicle described the joys of the naturalist’s expedition in 1868 as follows “The ‘kilted’ dress, the tin-box strapped under the arm, the trowel, the impromptu luncheon, the meeting of other parties – some in pursuit of butterflies, some of beetles, some with fishing-basket and line – all these things make up the sum total of the charm that surrounds our English summer tour.” Strangely, apart from this reference to the “kilted dress” (presumably one that allowed a little more ease of movement than some others), books and articles gave no advice on appropriate clothing for these trips. Illustrations of Victorian fern hunts (even in the fern gullies of Australia) depict men and women looking singularly over-dressed for the occasion. One of Sadie Price’s pupils recalled that she always wore long dresses that reached to her ankles and shoes (not boots) on their botanical excursions. Price herself described how, when finding a rare filmy fern, she had to “cast aside hat and botanical equipment, and crawl under the projecting rock, with scarcely room for head and shoulders to enter. It meant strained muscles and fresh accumulation of mud on the dress that had already passed recognition.”
The overwhelming desire to find a rare fern led the hunter or huntress to lean over fast-flowing rivers, descend precipitous ravines, wade through bogs, and scale rock faces and waterfalls. The botanist John Gill Lemmon (1832-1908), author of Ferns of the Pacific Coast (Including Arizona) (1882), related how, while botanising in the Huachuca Mountains of southern Arizona one hot August morning, he found himself in a box canyon or cul-de-sac. The precipitous stone walls were over 2,000ft high, and common sense suggested retreat. However, he saw that the rock ledges were richly decorated “like a colossal album of living ferns”. The discovery of an Aspidium juglandifolium that had not previously been found west of Texas encouraged him to start climbing. Tempted ever upwards by one new fern after another, he found himself a few hundred feet up the near-vertical cliffs. By the fourth resting place he was tired and cold, as the cliff face was in shadow, but “another most beautiful and rare fern was detected”, and the thought of what other finds might be awaiting drew him onwards and upwards. Unfortunately, it transpired that it was impossible to exit the canyon at the top due to a thick overhanging stratum of slate, and Lemmon was forced to descend the way he had ascended.
In 1855 Charles Kingsley celebrated the fact that because girls infected with Pteridomania were out and about collecting ferns in the fresh air, “the abomination of ‘Fancy-work,’ that standing cloak for dreamy idleness … has all but vanished from your drawing room.” But he spoke too soon, as from the 1860s making “ferny things” was all the rage among young ladies.
A child’s home could be filled with images of the plant, as it appeared in and on a huge variety of media, and was used as a decorative motif on household items from carpets to chamber pots. The inspiration of ferns’ frondy forms, lacy outlines and dramatic crosiers gave rise to some delightful fern-decorated objects, which were particularly noticeable at the London International Exhibition of 1862. Little girls could serve their dolls’ tea on fern-patterned plates, as Ridgways of Stoke on Trent not only produced full-size dinner services in a lovely transfer pattern called “Maiden Hair Fern”, but also toy tea and dinner sets.
Indeed, the majority of British ceramics companies produced fern designs. Wedgwood made transfer-decorated plates using illustrations from Anne Pratt’s 1855 book The Ferns of Great Britain. And Minton, Hollins & Co. offered tiles featuring ferns and other woodland plants in 1876.
The Staffordshire pottery William Brownfield registered a stoneware jug called “Fern” on 5 November 1859, and exhibited it at the 1862 Exhibition. It consisted of stylised, erect fern fronds with heads of wheat hanging down between them from an acanthus-leaf border. This was their most popular jug, and was produced in at least 16 different colour combinations, including one in majolica.
Iron was a particularly suitable medium in which to portray ferns. In Australia they were used as a motif in cast-iron balcony panels, friezes, and brackets, together with other indigenous plants, animals and birds. A cast-iron fountain made by Walter Macfarlane & Co’s Saracen Foundry in Glasgow, which had hart’s tongue fronds in the inside corners of its sheltering dome, appeared in towns and cities all over the world, sometimes erected for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.
Fern mania had taken hold. In an article entitled “Nature-decoration” in January 1872 The Reliquary and Illustrated Archaeologist (a “quarterly journal and review devoted to the study of early pagan and Christian antiquities of Great Britain”) excitedly reported that Mr HM Lee of 22 Bloomsbury Street in London had conceived the idea of sandwiching exotic (including gold and silver) and British ferns between sheets of glass, so preserving their colour forever.
The journal opined that no form of ornamentation previously introduced would become so general in homes of taste, and they advised their friends “to follow the example of HRH the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Sutherland, the Earl of Dudley, and others, and employ Mr. Lee to add the charm of his invention to the elegancies of their homes.”
‘Fern Fever: The Story of Pteridomania’ by Sarah Whittingham is published by Frances Lincoln, £35
Edited extract by Nathan Brooker