Pteridomania: The Victorian Craze for Ferns

By Kes Murray, Registrar

Walking through our Henry House is like walking back into the mid-1800s. From the furniture, to the decorations, our Henry House is a good example of a Victorian home, right down to the tiniest detail. Walking through, you may notice that a lot of the decorations and motifs are floral. This is because the Victorians loved their plants! During the Victorian era, Botany became one of the most popular scientific fields within English society, due in part to colonialization and expansion of European countries into the Americas, Asia, Oceania, and Africa, and also from the scientific endeavour to collect and classify the natural world.

When thinking of the Victorian era and flowers, you may think of a few things, such as the Victorian language of flower dictionaries that grew in popularity, the emphasis on gardening and landscaping during this period, the popular pastime of collecting and pressing flowers, or the boom in greenhouses and hothouses. No aspect of life was exempt from the craze of flowers.

However, one unique plant captured this Victorian plant craze to a new extreme. This plant was that of the fern. This craze was so intense that it created its own name, called Pteridomania, meaning fern fever.

A bright room with pink wallpaper. There is a large wooden couch, and two framed items on the wall. There is a fern on a pedestal in the room as well.
Parlour, Henry House, with a fern in the corner.

How did this start?

Ferns have a long mysterious history before the Victorian era. It has long been used for medicinal purposes, commonly used for treating asthma, hair loss, kidney complaints, and worms. However, the real mystery was that of how ferns reproduced. None knew how they grew, thus myths spread that ferns has magical properties, and eating the fern seed could make one invisible.  

Throughout the 1700s, minor scientific developments happened in the study of ferns. The largest challenge to this study was the survival rate. England only had about fifty native species, but many botanist wanted the exotic ferns. Transporting ferns from Australia, for example, was extremely difficult, as ferns would not survive the harsh conditions of the trip. Just about 2% of ferns survived the journey.

However, this all changed with the invention of the Wardian case. In 1829, Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, a doctor and an amateur naturalist, invented the Wardian case. Ward had a keen interest in ferns but faced difficulties when growing them in foggy, damp, and polluted London, England. One night in 1829, he placed the chrysalis of a moth in a sealed glass bottle with moss at the bottom. To his surprise, he noticed some days later that a seedling fern had started growing inside. We can then think of the Wardian case as a precursor to that of our modern terrariums. They acted as a protective case and also as a microenvironment.

A view into a room from a doorway. There is a window with drapery and a fern in the centre
Dining Room, Henry House, with fern in the window.

Together, Ward and friend George Loddiges, also a botanist, began experimenting with larger Wardian cases. By 1831, they had grown thirty fern species in the Wardian cases. Overall, the Wardian case allowed plants from all over the world to be brought to England and survive.

Along with new inventions, literature added to this growing fern craze. In 1840, Edward Newman wrote A History of British Ferns. In this book, Newman praised Ward for his work and wrote that only those with “good taste” would attempt growing ferns. This right here started the fern craze.

People began collecting and hunting for ferns. Different species came from all over the world. Greenhouses and ferneries were created, where one could walk through and enjoy different fern species, along with other plants, flowers, shrubs, and trees. And of course, fern motifs could be found on everything from buildings, to ceramics, to clothing.

Our own collection here at the museum contains some of this fern craze. I was delighted when I found some clothing with fern motifs and Victorian era photography with individuals wearing clothing with fern themes.

However, this fern craze came with some costs. As the rage for ferns continued, prices increased. It became more difficult to find new species of ferns, and fern hunters would put themselves into dangerous situations just to find that new fern, like climbing mountains or venturing into unknown environments. Many injuries happened. Soon, some ferns, like the Killarney fern, became nearly extinct due to this craze.

A black jar with gold lid; it has a fern motif and features the word 'Oshawa'
Oshawa souvenir, with fern decoration, made by Oshawa’s Smith Potteries (020.7.1)

Pteridomania ended in the early 1900s. But, if you come to our Henry House, you can still see the fern craze in action.


Sources consulted:

Books

  • Bailey, M. & Bailey, A. (2021). The Hidden Histories of House Plants. Hardie Grant Books.
  • Favretti, R. J., & Favretti, J. P. (1997). Landscapes and gardens for historic buildings: A handbook for reproducing and creating authentic landscape settings. Rowman Altamira.
  • Shteir, A. B. (1997). Gender and” modern” botany in Victorian England. Osiris12, 29-38.
  • Whittingham, S. (2009). The Victorian Fern Craze. Shire.

Websites

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