While we might think of viral social media trends as a purely modern phenomenon, the people of the past were certainly no strangers to passing fads and fashions. The Victorian era, the long stretch of time encompassing much of the nineteenth century and ending with the death of Queen Victoria at the turn of the twentieth, was a time of significant Western discovery and development in areas of science, technology, and the arts, both in Ireland and in Britain. It was a time of ‘newness’, when expeditions were setting off across the world and bringing home tales of unknown flora and fauna to an entranced audience.
This era of Western discovery and science also coincided with the sudden availability of mass produced and readily accessible reading materials. Books, magazines, and pamphlets could be found in every genre, in every person’s possession, be they scholar or street merchant, man, woman, or child. Ideas and information spread rapidly in a way not experienced before and evidence of this can be seen throughout the extensive collections of material from this period housed within UCD Special Collections. The cultural and scientific maelstrom of this time led to a surge of fascination with previously undocumented or overlooked plant life, and one plant in particular grabbed the attention of the Victorian public, leading to a social frenzy that would become known as ‘pteridomania’, a term derived from the scientific name for the humble fern.
The beginnings of fern-mania are captured in the botanical textbooks of the 1820s and 1830s. These often take the form of scientific indexes, featuring descriptions of various species of ferns, along with studies on cultivation and hybridisation.
These texts are often accompanied by highly detailed illustrations which are undoubtedly accomplished works of art in their own right. The following decades saw a boom in this kind of scientific literature and ferns became a major field of study in botanical science. It isn’t surprising that many of these books can be found in the Royal College of Science for Ireland Collection (RCScI). Founded in the peak of fern-mania in 1867, the Royal College of Science for Ireland was one of UCD’s antecedent institutions. With a focus on contemporary scientific studies, the books which make up the collection reflect this.
As time went on, these types of books began to be advertised to a wider audience. Botanical scholars such as Thomas Moore capitalised on the public interest in ferns, publishing several popular books on the subject.
As more and more texts were published, the fascination with collecting and cultivating ferns grew and the frenzy for ferns was no longer reserved for scientists and academics. During this time, those who lived in the cities began to see gardening as a leisure activity as well as an opportunity to show off to their neighbours. With scientific advancements in plant growing technology, in particular a type of terrarium called a Wardian case combined with a newfound interest in greenhouses, fashionable ferns were suddenly the must have accessory for the city home. Again, this is reflected in the literary record with ferns featuring prominently in publications like The Floral Magazine (33.H.1-19) and The Garden (103.O.49).
Exotic ferns could be purchased from specialist fern merchants or cultivators. But they could also be found in the local countryside and, as a result, fern gathering became a thriving new pastime. With their books in hand, any interested person could venture into the woodlands in search of their favourite ferns. This was an opportunity for exploration and, in many cases, an excuse to socialise and travel to new areas, especially for young women. Women played an important role in early botanical science and, while their accomplishments were often overlooked, they do feature prominently in the literary record. Early botanist Margaret Plues’ wonderful Rambles in Search of Flowerless Plants captures the excitement and wonder of Victorian fern hunting. It mixes botanical science with descriptions of the wild countryside and the often gruelling search for her beloved ferns. She writes of an encounter with one type of fern:
Our first acquaintance with this group was made in one of the beautiful “dales” of Yorkshire. The river Swale winds serpent-like along the valley, and when we began our exploration the morning sun was turning its waters to gold. On the hill-sides on either hand are deep clefts, worn by mountain streams, the deep banks covered with Birch-wood. In these wooded glades we began our eager search for Ferns.Margaret Plues, Rambles in Search of Flowerless Plants (1865)
Ferns and fern imagery is also present in children’s literature of the period, for example in the John Manning Collection. The beautifully decorated Fern’s Hollow (45.O.23) tells the story of the eponymous Fern and his adventures. The slightly later Tales and Talks in Nature’s Garden (45.U.22) from 1908 demonstrates the continuing fascination with ferns after the turn of the century. Written from the perspective of a young girl, the narrator describes how she has planted her own garden including ‘small ferns from the wood’. Her father advises her to place a stone above them to keep their roots cool and damp and, having followed his instructions, she proudly confirms that her ferns are ‘growing splendidly’. In these children’s books, we again see the fascination with fern imagery, finding and collection ferns in the countryside, and learning how best to grow and cultivate them.
Ferns, perhaps more than any other plants, were pervasive throughout Victorian society. In art, science and especially literature, ferns become so ubiquitous that it’s almost difficult to not stumble across them. And once you know about fern-mania you might just find yourself looking for them and suddenly it isn’t too hard to see why the Victorians were so enthralled with these fascinating plants after all.
This post was researched and written by Claire Dunne, Library Assistant, UCD Special Collections and National Folklore Collection.
Whittingham, S. (2012), Fern Fever: The Story of Pteridomania. London: Frances Lincoln.