We’d have been at home in mid-Victorian Britain when Pteridomania first became a common complaint, but at least we don’t do what the Victorians did and pillage the countryside for a quick fix.
As I’m sure you realised you won’t find Pteridomania in the NHS book of transmissible diseases. In fact as a malady it was only invented by Charles Kingsley, more famously author of ‘The Water Babies’, in his book ‘Glaucus’ in 1855. He used it to describe a form of mania that swept through Britain in the mid-19thc and that he claimed mainly affected young women…
Pteridomania is, as I’m sure you knew, the posh term for Fern-Fever which is one of those extraordinary plant crazes that have affected gardeners and previously non-gardeners alike when technology and global power allowed nurseries and gardeners to collect and grow large numbers of unusual plants in exactly the right conditions. The most famous of these was the craze for tulips in the 17thc with others for hyacinths, anemones and auriculas a long way behind in the 18thc. By the 19thc attention had turned to harder to keep plants such as orchids and palms but while they required the right amounts of heat, light, and humidity which often required expensive housing and heating, ferns although potentially temperamental were much easier and usually require only damp and shade, which was easily provided in most parts of Britain. It was even possible to keep them indoors with ease once Dr Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward had devised his famous Glazed case.
As a previous post showed Ward’s case transformed the contents of Victorian greenhouses. It allowed plants to be moved around the world with ease, but equally important it made it possible to grow plants indoors even in polluted cities. The technology was simple and mass production made glazed cases or terraria [terrariums?] available to anyone with only a modest income. The principles of Ward’s system were copied and adapted by many others.
Ward’s invention also allowed women to take take an interest in science without any hint of impropriety. They could study and care for ferns either in one of the ornamental versions of his cases in the privacy of their own homes, or in their gardens. Plants were definitely in the feminine sphere and as a result botany had become the acceptable face of science for women by the 18thc with a large body of literature, often written by women for women.
[For more on this see for eg Ann Shtier, Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science (1996) and Sam George, Botany, Sexuality and Women’s Writing 1760-1830]
But why did Kingsley coin this new word? In particular why mania – a term usually associated with mental health. I suspect its because another Victorian obsession was around signs of madness and mental disorder, which was identified with almost any minor deviation from “proper” behaviour. Such medical terms were used as a way of explaining or even targeting women who did not conform to societal norms: the most obvious example being hysteria. Was Pteridomania Kingsley’s response to the great interest young women were taking ferns medically-inspired? Or was it perhaps simply that his sister Charlotte had become a pteridomane and was writing a book about fern collecting in Devon where the Kingsleys lived.
“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.”
Mind you his reasons for accepting fern-fever as an acceptable pursuit seem simply to have been because it was better than the usual alternatives.
“At least you will confess that the abomination of “Fancy-work” – that standing cloak for dreamy idleness (not to mention the injury which it does to poor starving needlewomen) – has all but vanished from your drawing-room since the “Lady-ferns” and “Venus’s hair” appeared; and that you could not help yourself looking now and then at the said “Venus’s hair”, and agreeing that Nature’s real beauties were somewhat superior to the ghastly woollen caricatures which they had superseded.”
Of course it was more than just women who were interested. The advantage of fern collecting and keeping was that it could be done by almost anyone anywhere and there’s no doubt that interest in it crossed all boundaries of class and income. It’s easy to see why that was the case. Although you could spend a fortune on a special building dedicated to a fernery, you didn’t need to, because it was easy to keep most ferns without any special equipment or technology and crucially you could find your specimens almost anywhere in the country. Having said all that just as with almost any other hobby those with money have a big advantage. They can buy the rarest specimens and provide them with the perfect artificial environment. As we’ll see in another post soon the Fernery became a must have on many grand estates.
Pteridomania was already popular long before Kingsley named it. Ferns had been growing in gardens and included in herbals and flora since at least the time of John Gerard but they seem to come to more prominence in the late 18thc, appearing for example in A descriptive catalogue of upwards of 1100 species and varieties of herbaceous or perennial plants … to which is added a list of hardy ferns for the decoration of Northern Borders by John Graefer, “Botanic Gardener to the King of Naples” London 1789.
However the first book dedicated to them that I can find is Filices Britannicæ; an history of the British proper ferns. by James Bolton of Halifax, 1785-1790 which has as many as 46 delicate coloured engravings.
Their first major champion is William Hooker [later the first Director of Kew] who wrote his Icones Filicum 1829-31 with large chunks of botanical Latin, and followed it up with his British Flora which specifically included ferns in 1830, and a prospectus for a book on East Indies ferns in 1831. 1837 saw the publication of An Analysis of the British Ferns and their allies by George Francis and 5 years later Hooker added Genera Filicum or, illustrations of the ferns and other allied genera” with images by the great botanical artist Franz Bauer, many of which were done with the aid of a microscope.
At around the same time, in 1841, a new magazine Phytologist began publishing the latest fern discoveries which had largely been ignored by other botanical magazines in favour of more exotic flowering plants.
Hooker’s books were strictly scientific and it took the publication of a more populist book to really capture the public appetite for the subject. Edward Newman’s A History of British Ferns, first published in 1840, quickly became a bestseller. Later editions ran to nearly 400 pages. It was, said Newman, not aimed at those who “trouble themselves greatly about scientific Botany, but who love ferns because they are beautiful and give zest and interest to many a ramble in the country: moreover the cultivation of ferns is becoming fashionable.” In it he describes his own conversion to the love of ferns which had only started a few years before walking in the welsh mountains.
After that the floodgates opened, and it’s almost impossible to know how many books were published on the subject before the First World War but I’ve seen estimates of up to 400. One significant one was Thomas Moore’s The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland which was edited by John Lindley of the Horticultural Society, and had a new kind of illustration by Henry Riley Bradbury. Known as “nature printing”, and invented in Germany in 1852, but modified and improved by Bradbury, it used real fern fronds pressed into soft lead, this was then electroplated to create the printing plate.The process created a very delicate but obviously completely realistic impression. It worked because ferns are generally two dimensional but Bradbury’s attempts to use the technique on other plants failed and the idea was short-lived.
However it continued to be used for ferns with several sets of sophisticated prints being made in the 1870s and 1880s by Thomas Smith, a gardener, for members of the British Pteridological Society [more on which below]. More followed and were collectively known as “Jones’s Nature Prints” after Col. A. M. Jones who raised a subscription to illustrate the varieties of the native ferns that were then being collected or raised. Around 300 large prints were sent to each of the 48 subscribers. There were also much cruder attempts. Then botanic artists got better as Walter Hood Fitch’s illustrations for later works by Hooker show.
Many of the early books were basically botanical texts but within 15 years according to Shirley Hibberd, in the preface to his own contribution, “Beginners in fern culture are very much perplexed by the abundance of books on the subject, and their general unfitness too afford the aid a beginner needs.” This was he added because “Almost everyone has written a book on ferns”,
Hibberd’s The Fern Garden (1869) was much more than a botanical handbook, and included much practical even decorative advice. Of course he was not the first to do this, explaining that there were ” myriads of bad books that swarm in cheap bookshops” which he hoped his small volume would supersede.
He explained ‘How to Form an Outdoor Fernery’, and the best ways of keeping ‘Ferns in Pots’, in ‘The Fern House’, or even how to have a ‘Fernery at the Fireside’ in which he describes the benefits of using Wardian cases: ‘In the heart of a great city, the fern case is a boon of priceless value… It is a bit of the woodside sealed down with the life of the wood in it.’
What I love about Hibberd is his intense practicality. He writes very much from his own experience. Who else would have explained at great length to their readers the correct way to drill holes in a coconut shell to make it a suitable habitat for ferns? He adds long lists of ferns for every situation again clearly based on his own knowledge, and even instructions for making a table based case.
After Hibberd, books, including many written by women, poured off the presses. They were generally very similar and seem rather dull to us, mostly having just a few simple line engravings and a lot of long lists of species.
More serious collectors formed The West of England Pteridological Society in the early 1870s, although that seems to have folded around 1876. It was followed in 1891 by the Northern Pteridological Society which quickly became the British Pteridological Society. However amateur botanists identified more and more species as plant hunters scoured the less accessible areas of Scotland, Wales and the upland regions of the west and north of England where the climate was damper and the air cleaner creating good fern habitats, and where too crucially of course human intervention was less pervasive.
But there are only about 40 types of ferns in the English countryside, and so the publication of so many books which revealed localities sometimes led to plunder as we’ll see in a future post. Luckily ferns cross easily and produce many variants although this was not noticed in the early books but from the 1850s such new varieties became the thing to look for. Fern hunting parties became popular social occasions although of course this may have had something to do with the less strict chaperoning that would be possible on such occasions.
If they couldn’t go searching for themselves they could patronize one of a new breed of indigenous plant hunter – the “Fern Collector” -to scour the countryside for them. Some of course were more legal than others.
It’s worth noting that the collectors weren’t charged with stealing the ferns but damaging the hedgerow as there were no laws protecting plants.
Alternatively they could turn to a number of specialist fern nurseries growing for the market and also importing them from all round the world. Just look at the range of origins of ferns from the first page of the Backhouse catalogue of 1857. It has eight double pages of ferns but only one of orchids.
The ability to search for and collect a wide variety of ferns was possible because of the improvements in road transport, the rapid spread in the rail network and the growth of the new postal service that were taking place in the early to mid-19thc. Combined these innovations led to the possibility of mail order so that it was now possible to buy these exotics from the comfort of your own home and have them delivered quickly. But of course there were downsides to this ability to indulge in a passion for ferns and I’ll look at those in another post soon