Fern Hunting: A Very Victorian Vagary

Sorry, millennials. We’re not the first generation to go mad for indoor gardening.

The Victorians made the world smaller. They industrialised. They streamlined the telegraph and the postal service. They invented the telephone. They went out into the world and explored for queen and country and they travelled for fun. They brought the world back to Britain and put it into their homes.

Among the more popular (and less morally questionable) souvenirs were the plants the Victorians collected.

The mid 19th century was the first time that tropical plants could thrive indoors in the UK. Improvements in engineering and glasswork had made for large, bright, airy townhouses. By the middle of the 19th century, the most fashionable drawing rooms brimmed with exotic greenery.

The grandest Victorian homes had orangeries to grow citrus trees brought back from grand tours in Italy and beyond. Even the more modest parlours sported an aspidistra (native to East Asia) or a palm (usually from the Americas). While these plants look decidedly ‘old lady’ in comparison with the #apartmentjungles of the last 5 years, they were a focal point and a conversation piece for generations of Victorians.

A classic Victorian terrace in England. Imagine the plants you could grow in the bay window.

The most popular plant of all, however, wasn’t something that we tend to grow inside today. The Victorians went mad for ferns. They loved them and shelled out for them and dedicated their free time to them in a way that even the Pilea growers of 2016 could only dream of.

In the four decades from 1850–1890, large swathes of the British population were gripped by Pteridomania, otherwise known as fern fever.

The man behind the craze was Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, a doctor’s son from London. He became a doctor and he had four sons who were also doctors but he’s remembered not for medicine, but his contribution to indoor gardening.

Ward was trying to hatch a hawk moth chrysalis when he discovered that ferns germinated effortlessly in a sealed, humid container. In 1829, he developed this idea into a glass box, a so-called Wardian case, which allowed him to grow ferns even in the increasingly polluted London air. It was a proto-terrarium, and it revolutionised both the way that the Victorians transported plants and the way that they grew them in their homes.

Highly ornamental Wardian Cases were developed after the initial design was perfected.

Before the Wardian case, only 5% of plants survived the journey by sea from the tropics. Afterwards, only 5% died. Within only a few years, Wardian cases had also replaced parlour palms as the focal point of the Victorian home.

Just like Ward, the people proceeded to fill them with ferns.

Orangeries had slipped out of fashion, and the whole country was caught up in a fern frenzy. Even those who couldn’t afford a Wardian case collected fronds. They used them in flower arrangements and pressed the leaves in elaborate albums. They built rocky outdoor ferneries in their gardens. The fashion trickled down from the aristocracy to the middle classes and eventually to farmworkers and miners.

Even those who weren’t growing or picking ferns for themselves got in on the trend. Design companies, including the famous Wedgwood pottery, released objects printed with fern leaves. Remember 2017, when there were Monstera leaves on everything? From the 1850s almost to the end of the Victorian era, people stencilled ferns on their walls, their fabric, and everything else that would stand still.

We can even see evidence of the trend in our beloved custard cream biscuits. Although they weren’t sold until 1908, the design is based on a Victorian printing plate of, you guessed it, a furled fern frond.

The design on a custard cream has been the same since 1908

But why did ferns become so popular so quickly? Yes, Ward had made it easy to grow this previously very tricky plant, but surely something more interesting was being brought back from overseas? Ferns were not exotic. They belonged in cold, damp, British woodlands. It’s not exactly a plant you could turn to in winter to remind you of the sun on your face.

To an extent, the people were pushed.

The same principles that Ward employed in his famous case allowed George Loddiges to build the largest hothouse in the world. It was spectacular, but it had been expensive to build. He had to sell tickets to recoup the cost, so he set out to popularise the ferns he was growing.

Loddiges started a rumour that growing ferns was a sign of intelligence. He claimed that ‘ferning’ increased virility and improved mental health.

He also encouraged people to go out into the countryside and find them for themselves. His neighbour, Edward Newman, published a book called A History of British Ferns around the same time. The book supported all of Loddiges’ claims.

Convinced that collecting ferns was not only good for the constitution, but manly and fun, the Victorians took the countryside clutching copies of the newly published guidebooks. There were around 70 native species of fern in Britain at this time, and the goal was to catch them all.

This new hobby was the height of adventure. In the 1840s, the Victorians had built hundreds of miles of railways. It had never been easier for people to leave the cities. It had never been quicker or more affordable to travel to the wilds of the Scottish borders or the depths of the Devon countryside. The hills, the clean air, and the dark, lichen-covered forests, were another, unexplored world.

Ferning was thrilling. Because these areas of the country had never been accessible before, there was a genuine possibility that an amateur botanist, whether aristocrat or factory hand, might be the one to discover a whole new species.

And as if that wasn’t sexy enough, there were the ferns themselves.

It’s a common stereotype that the Victorians were repressed. I’m not here to confirm or refute this claim, but I will say this: they found something visceral in the ferns they were hunting. They seemed to appreciate the darkness of them, the dampness, the delicate fringes of the leaves. They read too much into the name ‘maidenhair fern’. They created symbols from the forceful, uncurling leaves.

Suggestive, isn’t it?

Some have claimed that ferns were understood to be representative of female sexuality but, unless you count their association with pixies, there’s no evidence of this in either classical or biblical texts. If this claim is true, the Victorians may just have been searching for an outlet.

Ferns have a weird sex life. They don’t flower or produce fruit; they just release spores into the air. They’re also wizened and primordial. At the same time as the Victorians were digging ferns out of the forests, they were finding them in aeons-old fossils that they didn’t understand. It’s all a bit twisted.

The degree to which sexual repression had a hand in the popularity of ferning is debatable. What is much clearer is the part it came to play in the lives of women.

We should be a little bit outraged on behalf of the female fern hunters of the Victorian age. As soon as they got involved, perception of the pastime shifted from a healthy outdoor pursuit to a ‘mania’- a symptom of an obsessed and unsound mind. This ignored the fact that the trend had started because men allowed another man to tell them that gathering plants would show how red-blooded they were.

The term ‘Pteridomania’ was coined in 1855 to describe the frenzy that was developing. What’s more, the author who coined the phrase, Charles Kingsley, witheringly said that he would rather see women ferning than reading novels and gossiping. To his mind, it was better to visit a house full of ferns than one full of needlework and other feminine pettifoggery.

We can roll our eyes, but fern hunting remains one of the first male-dominated pursuits in which women were allowed to take an equal part.

At a time before they were permitted to graduate from university, vote or own property, ferning gave women a taste of freedom that many of them had never experienced before.

Not only were they invited on the adventure, but they were also permitted to come without a chaperone.

In the mid 19th century, women who lived close to the countryside reimagined their tea parties as fern hunting picnics and would spend all day in the woods together. When they’d finished their sandwiches, they would fill the basket with ferns, have competitions to see who had found the rarest one, and take them back on the train. Simply because it allowed them to travel alone, it must have been a more liberating day out than any that could have been had in the city.

Ferning also became an important part of courtship. Men and women alone and unsupervised in the woods? Trips to Scotland that would take you away overnight? Who knows how many couples met in the wilderness and went on to plant up a Wardian case together in London?

Of course, there was a downside. Ferning was devastating to the environment. Some new species emerged from everything being jammed together in ferneries, but species such as the Killarney fern were collected to extinction in parts of Scotland and the southwest of England.

The valleys of the Moffat Hills in the Scottish borders were prime ferning territory. They also saw the most species go extinct.

As early as the 1860s, there were calls for ferns to be protected by law. It was argued that the same laws which applied to game should apply to the delicate plants.

The trend continued for another 30 years, and no such law materialised.

There was also a black market for fern collectors alongside an above-board mail-order system. For a non-native fern, more than one rich Victorian paid £1000. That’s well over £125,000 in today’s money.

For the black market, ferns were stolen from the countryside, stored in piles under glass, and sold all through the year to keep the public interested. A band of women taking a basket of ferns back to London was one thing, traders stripping everything from a woodland in a day was another.

Although the trend was dying by the last decade of Victoria’s rule, many ferneries were preserved until the outbreak of WWI. Although it didn’t take off overseas into quite the same extent, ferning was also popular in other countries, and the American ferning society remains the largest in the world.

Eventually, the fern craze was replaced by a fashion for orchids but they never captured the nation’s hearts in quite the same way.

Perhaps in the 20th century, there were better things to spend money and time on. Perhaps, as the world continued to shrink, people became more aware of what was happening in the countries their plants were coming from. The bubble burst and a plant started to represent something at once more and less than it had done before.

Since the Wardian cases were locked for good, we’ve never seen as a fad as all-encompassing, as liberating, or as long-lived as Pteridomania. Still, fern collecting drove the development of the infrastructure that enables our house plant collections today. And we can certainly recognise the obsession, the thrill of the chase for the rarest specimen, and the joy in nurturing something green in your own home.

Copywriter, literature grad, incorrigible sweet tooth, collector of Austrian historical trivia, pub quiz champion.

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