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The Victorian Fern Craze – Sarah Whittingham
“For hundreds of years ferns were regarded as magical and mysterious plants.”
While long used for medicines, animal feed and even in glass production, ferns were not considered decoratively until the nineteenth century, after their unusual form of reproduction was finally understood and they could be cultivated and not simply harvested.
As middle class families took to gardening, formerly the exclusive preserve of the leisured and moneyed, the market for tools and plants exploded. In addition, the expansion of the British Empire, and accompanying exploration, meant that exotic flora could be shipped home for avid collectors.
One invention that helped the pursuit of plants was the Wardian case, a sort of cross between a greenhouse and terrarium, large enough to hold a number of samples but small enough for transport.
The fern specifically owed its new status to the wildly and oddly popular “A History of British Ferns,” by Edward Newman. In particular his equating the love of ferns with people of good taste ensured that people of all walks of life would find the possession of at least one or two ferns to be not just an aesthetic but a social requirement. So great was ‘pteriodmania’ that it spread across the Atlantic, finding great, if not equal, popularity in America.
Another important influence was the rise of amateur botany. Botany was considered one of the only natural sciences suitable for study by gently reared ladies. In the USA many of the most important scientific works on the subject were written by women, while in Britain many of the great botanical illustrators were female.
Fern hunting was considered excellent exercise and amusement for both of the sexes.
The spirit of the fern hunters helped lead to the discovery of 1,861 varieties in Britain alone. Periodicals and books on the subject flooded the market, and the hunters were even satirized in Punch –
‘Botanizing is not a bad way of getting over the afternoon…it is a well-known fact
that the rarest specimens grow in the least frequented spots, so you and your
blooming companion can – but the hint is sufficient.’
I am afraid I am not close to doing justice to how charming and amusing this book is, in addition to be informative. Whittingham has a light touch as a writer, and recognizes that with describing the scientific work, and studying the collectors, respect and humor go hand in hand. As is to be expected in any book that discusses the scorn in which the “Professional Fern Tout,” was held by serious botanists.
“Professional Fern Tout.”
That gives me an idea for an outfit.