Pteridomania: The Victorian Obsession With Ferns

Victorian man surrounded by his fern collection
Pteridomania, meaning Fern Madness or Fern Craze, a compound of the word Pteridophytes (plants that produce neither flowers nor seeds), and mania, is believed to have been coined in 1855 by scholar and author Charles Kingsley in his book, Glaucus, or the Wonders of the Shore. He writes:

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.”

In the 19th century, Pteridomania took Britain, and on a smaller scale, the United States, by storm. While the craze lasted, this “fern madness” invaded all aspects of Western life. From collecting expeditions to fern markets, and fern motifs making their way to high street fashion designs.

Ferns began to be marketed in the 1830s as a plant for “intelligent people,” especially those interested in amateur botany.

Examples of warden cases housing ferns and other popular plants.

Any fern collector in the 19th century would know that you needed a “fernery”, or “Wardian case.” This was often a decorative glass house where the ferns could be grown in ideal conditions within the home, while also providing an interesting conversational display piece for visitors to admire. Ferneries and Wardian cases came in styles from simple to ornate, allowing middle class fern enthusiasts to participate in the hobby alongside upper class collectors. 

For the wealthy, there were also outdoor private ferneries. Some with money to devote to their new hobby created dedicated outdoor buildings to house their ferns. Often gothic in style, these ferneries usually featured stone buildings, large rocks and boulders, with water access, to create the humid environment that helped ferns thrive. The result was a carefully planned fern garden that gave the impression of ferns growing in the wild.

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

Though ferns could be purchased, many Victorian ladies found a thrill in the adventure of hunting ferns for themselves, as well as joy in learning about them. Because of their nature, ferns tended to thrive in the significantly damper western and northern parts of Britain. Railroads and paved roads in the area made taking a trip to the fern-growing regions more accessible to young women who lived in larger cities like London. With field guides in hand, these amateur botanists gathered with friends, sometimes in lieu of tea parties, for an expedition of their very own. When they’d finished their sandwiches, they would fill their baskets with ferns and compete with friends to find the rarest or most impressive fern. At the end they would take both fronds for pressing and full rooted plants back home to enjoy.

Etching of a man and woman hunting for ferns

Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Gathering with other young ladies for an afternoon of fern hunting was not an activity that required a chaperone. The activity was seen as a wholesome” and “moral” activity for young women. The freedom to gather with peers and have small adventures in wooded areas without the need of a chaperone may have contributed to the popularity amongst young women in the United Kingdom. Men, however, were not immune to the charms of the fern, and participated in high-stakes fern collecting as well.

Fun Fact: In the Victorian era, where talk of anything remotely sexual was considered taboo, ferns also became a covert way to express sexual desire. The delicate fern fronds were often associated with females’ nether regions, and even had names that explicitly alluded to that imagery. The maidenhair fern, for example, was a euphemism for pubic hair, according to James A. Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of Latin America: “The name in English is doubtless a salacious extension.”

As a species, the fern is not easy to propagate, especially for amateur botanists. In the 19th century, there were only about 40 varieties of ferns in the English countryside. As collectors began to dominate the fern supply and demanded new varieties to add to their collections, prices began to climb quickly. 

As the local fern supply dwindled, especially in cities where ferns did not often grow naturally, prices began to rise, often cutting middle and lower class enthusiasts out of the activity. But, for serious fern collectors with money to spare, imported specimens were available at significant prices. Professional and amateur fern hunters alike wrote about scouring “the New World” including Australia, the Caribbean, and South America in search of new varieties to bring home and add to their collections. Funding a full expedition thousands of miles away was not exactly a cost-effective solution for curing one’s desire for new ferns, however. If you could not afford to travel to faraway lands on expedition (or found the long journey too taxing) but still wanted to find rare ferns, there was always the illicit underground markets. In fact, a notorious underworld of fern-stealing bandits did exist for quite some time! 

Widespread Pteridomania meant that some fern varieties, including the much favored Killarney Fern, were almost erased from existence. However, new varieties were also created during this time, often by accident. Because plants from all over the world were jammed close together in Wardian cases, sometimes interesting cross-breeds resulted, much to surprise of the collector.

The Victorian fascination with all things fern certainly evolved into a bonafide craze, and fern imagery was everywhere and anywhere. Especially popular in the decorative arts, fern patterns could be found on all manner of home goods– fabrics on chairs, wallpapers, pottery, tea sets, and dinnerware. Likewise, ferns made appearances on gowns, calling cards, and decorative iron gates. Of course, for those who could afford to purchase and care for them, ferns were displayed prominently in dining rooms, parlors, and even theaters and ballrooms. 

Tiffany lamp with Fern pattern, circa 1909.

Brooch with fern detail at center, circa 1880.

The fern craze declined significantly after the death of Queen Victoria, however, people were still actively engaged in the world of fern hunting until the 1940s. While the fern craze in the United States never reached the heights it did in England and the United Kingdom, fern collecting was a popular pastime in the United States, particularly amongst middle and upper class women. As in the United Kingdom, fern motifs found their way into American homes– Tiffany, for example, featured ferns on several lamp designs and other home goods that were quite popular.

Today, ferns continue find a place in many homes. Their relatively low-maintenance care and aesthetically pleasing growing patterns have solidified their popularity. While young ladies may not gather for fern hunting expeditions, the care, keeping, and propagation of other plants by amateur botanists has been on the rise in recent years. Will we see a resurgence of Pteridomania soon, as well? Or perhaps we’ll coin a new term to describe our keen fascination with another species of plant in the future.

Article contributed by Eugenia Hirsch, Camron-Stanford House docent and fan of all things fern.




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