by David Stokes
When the well-known Victorian writer Charles Kingsley, the author of the well-known children’s book the Water Babies coined the term ’Pteridomania’ in his book Glaucus Or the Wonders of the Shore, published in 1855, the fashion for ferns was already well established and starting to reach its peak. It started in 1832 for a variety of reasons. The technological advances leading to the invention of the heated glasshouse around 1826 were one of the main driving forces for this craze to begin. Another being the Wardian case. The accidental discovery by Dr Nathanial Ward in 1829, that the closed environment of a sealed glass bottle could maintain a living plant (a fern) traveling from his brother’s home in Australia to London, resulted in him devising a large sealed wooden and glass traveling case that could transport tender living plant material around the world on the deck of the sailing ships away from salt spray and burning sunlight. This lead to a revolution in commercial crops such as tea, rubber and coffee being able to be transported and grown far from their natural range. Also, the great plant collectors such as Robert Fortune (1812-1880) could send back living plant material including Rhododendrons and ferns to the botanic gardens and nurseries of Europe to satisfy the insatiable demand for ”The New”. Later, smaller ornamental domestic versions were made in the 1860’s for the living rooms of the Victorian middle classes to grow ferns.
There were four other significant reasons why a collection of ferns became popular. Firstly, many newly introduced temperate species such as the Australian Hen and Chickens fern (Asplenium bulbiferum) were remarkably tolerant of the low light levels, cold rooms and polluted atmosphere found in Victorian houses of the time. The prevalence of gas lamps, coal fires, and tobacco smoke as well as the pervading smog of industrial pollutants arising from unrestricted industry, helped to kill many of the indoor plants tried at the time.
Secondly, until 1848, when the fern reproductive cycle was discovered, ferns seemed to be sexless and so were deemed a suitable hobby for well-to-do ladies to pursue.
Thirdly, a proliferation of periodicals and horticultural magazines, particularly The Gardeners Chronicle beginning in 1841, popularised the craze.
Fourthly, the influence of Empire, particularly India and Indo-China pervaded many aspects of art and culture across Europe. Colonialism encouraged the flow of exotic plants from East to West, including many new species of orchids, palms and especially ferns. These three groups of plants all inspired a mania for collecting, but it was the ferns that took hold of the public imagination to such an extent that no public space was deemed complete without a fernery of some kind. These heated conservatories, palm courts, winter gardens and ferneries could be found at the country estates hotels and seaside resorts across not just Europe but in America and Australia too. In these, the public could experience the verdant growth, trickling streams of water and fountains that echoed the exotic East. Exquisite ferns like the tropical maidenhair fern, Adiantum raddeanum ’Tinctum’ (on display) with its delicate foliage and Asplenium australasicum (on display) with bold strap like fronds, both hailing from tropical Northern Australia were commonly used in these public ferneries.
Gradually, pteridomania took hold and by 1870 ferns were being stripped from the countryside by the thousands of tonnes to furnish the demand for indoor and outdoor ferneries. At the same time, on a weekend, the middle classes would assemble in fern gathering parties. They would head out in to the countryside often on the new railways looking for the rare or curious variations of ferns so desired by collectors. To help them locate and identify the fifty-four-native species and hundreds of newly named varieties, many guide books on ferns were published, some pocket sized to assist these avid fern enthusiasts. The fern enthusiasts were also equipped with fern trowels, narrow hand tools that could winkle ferns out of crevices. Wickerwork baskets to carry home their new specimens and fern vasculum’s, narrow tin boxes that could hold a few ferns without damage in a moist environment. Unusual hardy fern varieties of common Lady fern such as Athyrium filix-femina ’Frizelliae’ (on display) also called the tatting fern, were highly prized. This hardy variety of fern can be bought in Finland today and added to the 38-native species to create a modern Finnish outdoor fernery.
Newly introduced exotic tender ferns from around the world were added to the rare native species and planted in semi underground grottos and caves roofed with glass. The walls were constructed with rock when available, but often Pulhamite, an artificial rock invented by James Pulham & Son in the 1860’s that allowed ferns to be planted between the large irregular blocks and into planting pockets cast into them was used. Small rivulets of water were constructed to run along artificial streams, under bridges and cascaded over rock walls into shaded pools, all edged with ferns. The splashing water increased the humidity and created ideal growing conditions for hundreds of different species. Narrow cobbled paths made out of rounded beach pebbles wound around these outcrops of rock encrusted with ferns to give access to gardeners and their enthusiastic fern obsessed owners. One of the very few examples of this style of fernery that still exists has been recently restored. Ascog Hall’s subterranean Victorian fernery on the Isle of Bute in western Scotland contains all of these elements, resulting in a beautiful mixture of plants, nature and design.
One other indoor fernery, unique in style built in 1870, situated at Benmore Botanic Garden also in western Scotland was fully restored in 2009, after nearly a hundred years falling into disrepair and ruin. It is a tall stone building with a glass roof built into a high hillside with a natural rock face and contained a stream issuing from a pipe set into the rock. Water again flows around the roots of black stemmed tree ferns with 2-3-meter-long fronds, such as Dicksonia squarrosa from New Zealand (on display) and other large temperate ferns, like the Japanese Holly fern, Cyrtomium falcatum (on display) with half meter-long fronds. The little rill also runs under small stone footbridges and cascades into a lower pool half hidden among the lush tree fern fronds and smaller fronds of dark green Pellaea rotundifolia (on display) which like the Dicksonia is from New Zealand. Today the very steep stepped path up to this unusual building is flanked with a wide selection of hardy ferns giving the visitor an idea of how important ferns were to horticulture, architecture and the popular culture of the period. Ferns also featured extensively in the decorative arts right through the fern craze, which ran from 1832 to 1914, when the first world war broke out. Detailed fern motifs where individual species could be identified were to be found on plates, vases, glassware wallpapers and textiles. Also, Coalbrookdale ironwork garden benches depicting fern fronds and blackberries were extremely popular, along with cast-iron fern themed umbrella stands and even grave stones with carved and etched ferns adding decorative interest.
Today it is known that between 10500 and 12000 different species of ferns exist worldwide, offering infinite form and decoration. Perhaps now is time for a revival of Pteridomania, the fern craze that swept 19th century Europe.
[David Stokesin Pteridomania-teksti oli esillä Turun Piha & Puutarha -messuilla vuonna 2017.]