Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Pteridomania: A Victorian Craze

"Gathering ferns," by Helen Allingham, Illustrated
London News, July 1871
Pteridomania swept England in the middle to late 1800's. The mania was widespread, led to at least one death and to countless people traipsing the countryside.

What was it?

The Fern-Gatherer,
 by Charles Sillem Lidderdale, 1877
Fern collecting. That's right--ferns. People sought high and low for rare examples, built exotic terrarium-like furniture to house them, and wrote books about them. I had never heard about this, but I happened to stumble on a bit of fern folklore that set me to researching online, and I stumbled right into pteridomania. Who would have thought?

The Victorians decorated their china, glass planters, upholstery, wallpaper...almost everything...with fern designs. Fern houses were displayed in the most stylish parlors of the day, and young ladies sketched delicate portraits of fern fronds in their sketchbooks.

from Wikipedia
The fern houses were called Wardian cases, and they were elaborate things indeed. These were named after their inventor, Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward. Previously it was almost impossible to transport delicate foreign plants over the seas to England; the plants just could not survive the journey. Mr. Ward's glass structures provided an environment more suitable to the cause, and the glass houses were found to be well-suited to fern-growing as well. Another factor that was dangerous to the health of ferns and other woodland plants was the polluted air of England's cities at that time, but the cases also protected against that problem.

People went to great lengths to obtain their plants, hiking into wild places and hanging off cliffs if need be. One fern gatherer named William Williams lost his life that way in Wales; his body was found at the foot of a cliff where he had been trying to obtain some choice specimens.

I like seeing ferns in the woods; the lend an almost tropical air to almost any forest. I like to pick them for bouquets too, and once pressed and framed a few to hang on my walls, but that's the extent of my fern "mania."

The fern is the subject of some interesting folklore. Although ferns do not flower, there is a superstition in some parts of the world that the plants will flower, very briefly, on the eve of the summer solstice. If one is lucky enough to find a plant in flower, that person will gain extraordinary powers--being able to understand the language of the animals, for example, or to have great luck or wealth in their life. One story says that prior to the birth of Christ, all ferns flowered. On the night of his birth, all the flowers in the world burst into bloom except the fern, and as punishment the ability to produce flowers was taken away from the ferns.

In Staffordshire, England, it was once believed that burning ferns would cause rain, and the practice was employed whenever conditions were too dry in many other places in England and Scotland.

A Cornwall belief held that eating the first fern to emerge in spring would prevent toothache all year long. "A person who can wear fern seed about him will become invisible," and "fern found growing on a tree will cure stomach ache," according to the Encyclopedia of Superstitions. But don't wear ferns, because if you do you will lose your way and be followed by snakes.


Pterdomania. Wikipedia article.

Atlas Obscura. How the Victorian Fern-Hunting Craze Led To Adventure, Romance, and Crime

Finding a fern flower. Wikipedia article.

Fern Folklore. Comstock's West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia, vol 7, pp 1550-1551. Richwood WV 1976.

Historical medical use of ferns. Papers Past.

Radford, Mona and Edwin. Encyclopedia of Superstitions. Burning ferns to bring rain, pp

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


Brig said...

How interesting, thanks for sharing.
My favorite thing to do with fern fronts, is to secure them on an egg with a panty hose, place in water with onion skins and boil, remove from hose when done. Beautifully colored fern patterns.

Jenny said...

Ferns are one of my most favorite plants. I dig them out of the woods & plant them all around my house.

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