‘Fern fever’ was a Victorian craze for ferns. Decorative arts of the period 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, writes Martyn Baguley.


I am fascinated by the eruption of fads. I chose the verb carefully because fads are a bit like volcanic eruptions – unpredictable and dramatic. In an article written in 2003, Dr Jaap Ginneken of the University of Amsterdam said “mainstream psychosocial explanations of mass behaviour fail to understand the sudden and unpredicted speed with which fads tend to come up and fade away.” In short, they are a mystery, which I find fascinating.
One botanical fad that erupted in 1636 was what came to be called ‘tulipomania’. For no known reason, suddenly Dutch society, poor and rich, became fanatical about exotic tulips. In a matter of months prices for tulip bulbs rocketed.

At its peak the price of one bulb was more than ten times the yearly pay of a skilled artisan. Then in February 1637 prices for bulbs suddenly dropped. Nobody knows why. The tulip bubble had burst. People lost fortunes.
Tulipomania lasted for less than two years, but another plant fad, this time for ferns, lasted for some eighty years. It started in Britain, again inexplicably, in the 1830s, was at its peak during the second half of the 19th century, and petered out in the early 1900s.

During that time the craze for collecting and keeping ferns spread to Ireland, crossed the Atlantic to North America and went as far south as Australia. Charles Kingsley, in his book ‘Glaucus’ published in 1855, gave it the name Pteridomania (from pterido, the Latin for a fern) – ‘fern fever’.

The 19th century was a period when the great wealth and comfort of relatively few stood in stark contrast to the squalor and poverty of many. Middle to upper-class women had very few opportunities for other activities; even gardening was a male-dominated activity.

Suddenly fern-collecting, a hobby consistent with strict Victorian standards and supported by the established church which touted it as being a moral, healthy and educational activity that might ‘lead through nature to nature’s God’, offered opportunities for women and young girls to pursue a pastime that enabled them to mix with the opposite sex and freedom to wander in the countryside unaccompanied by male escorts.

It didn’t require money or much botanical knowledge; only an interest in ferns and time to go out and look for them. And it solved a perpetual worry middle-class Victorian men had: how their women-folk, with time on their hands and open to dangerous temptations, could be safely occupied.
What started as a societal interest blossomed into a fascination then erupted into an obsession. Nathanial Ward, a physician who lived in London’s docklands, developed what came to be called ‘Wardian Cases’, decorative glass containers in which ferns and other plants could be grown.

They became status symbols in Victorian homes.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own