Pteridomania

fern mania

Pteridomania [tuh-rid-uh-mey-nee-uh] or Fern-Fever was a craze for ferns. Victorian decorative arts presented the fern motif in pottery, glass, metal, textiles, wood, printed paper, and sculpture, with ferns ‘appearing on everything from christening presents to gravestones and memorials.’

The term, a compound of ‘Pteridophytes’  and ‘mania,’ was coined in 1855 by Charles Kingsley in his book ‘Glaucus, or the Wonders of the Shore’: ‘Your daughters, perhaps, have been seized with the prevailing ‘Pteridomania’…and wrangling over unpronounceable names of species (which seem different in each new Fern-book that they buy)…and yet you cannot deny that they find enjoyment in it, and are more active, more cheerful, more self-forgetful over it, than they would have been over novels and gossip, crochet and Berlin-wool.’

Although the main period of popularity of ferns as a decorative motif extended from the 1850s until the 1890s, the interest in ferns had really begun in the late 1830s when the British countryside attracted increasing numbers of amateur and professional botanists. New discoveries were published in periodicals, particularly ‘The Phytologist,’ a popular botanical miscellany, which first appeared in 1844. Ferns proved to be a particularly fruitful group of plants for new records because they had been studied less than flowering plants. Also, ferns were most diverse and abundant in the wilder, wetter, western and northern parts of Britain which were becoming more accessible through the development of better roads and the railway.

The collection of ferns drew enthusiasts from different social classes and it is said that ‘even the farm laborer or miner could have a collection of British ferns which he had collected in the wild and a common interest sometimes brought people of very different social backgrounds together.’

For some a fashionable hobby and for others a more serious scientific pursuit, fern collecting became commercialized with the sale of merchandise for fern collectors. Equipped with ‘The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland’ or one of the many other books sold for fern identification, collectors sought out ferns from dealers and in their native habitats across the British Isles and beyond. Fronds were pressed in albums for display in homes. Live plants were also collected for cultivation in gardens and indoors. Nurseries provided not only native species but exotic species from the Americas and other parts of the world.

The Wardian case, a forerunner of the modern terrarium, was invented about 1829 by a physician to protect his ferns from the air pollution of 19th century London. Wardian cases soon became features of stylish drawing rooms in Western Europe and the United States and helped spread the fern craze and the craze for growing orchids that followed. Ferns were also cultivated in fern houses (greenhouses devoted to ferns) and in outdoor ferneries.

Besides approximately seventy native British species and natural hybrids of ferns, horticulturalists of this era were very interested in so-called monstrosities – odd variants of wild species. From these they selected hundreds of varieties for cultivation.

Fern motifs first became conspicuous at the 1862 International Exhibition and remained popular ‘as fond symbol of pleasurable pursuits’ until the turn of the century.

As fern fronds are somewhat flat they were used for decoration in ways that many other plants could not be. They were glued into collectors’ albums, affixed to three dimensional objects, used as stencils for ‘spatter-work,’ inked and pressed into surfaces for nature printing, and so forth.

The zeal of Victorian collectors led to significant reductions in the wild populations of a number of the rarer species. Oblong Woodsia came under severe threat in Scotland, especially in the Moffat Hills. This area once had the most extensive UK populations of the species but there now remain only a few small colonies whose future remains under threat.

While popular in the UK, ‘the craze seemed to have passed America by – most likely because these same species in America are essentially free of these ‘freaky’ abnormal forms. It may also be due to the fact the American botanists have been for the most part more interested in unraveling the complexities of the species involved in the fern complexes such as Asplenium, Dryopteris, and Botrychium.’ Nevertheless, the American Fern Society was established in 1893 and now has over 900 members worldwide.

The Dorrance H. Hamilton Fernery at the University of Pennsylvania is the only remaining freestanding Victorian fernery in North America. It has a curved Victorian-style glass roof and turned 100 years old in 1999. Designed by John Morris, the arboretum’s namesake, the Fernery is said to embody ‘some of the many passions of the Victorians: a love of collecting, a veneration of nature, and the fashion of romantic gardens….its filigree roof sparkling in sunlight.’

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