Gardens: Exploring the story of Pteridomania

Ascog Hall fernery, after restoration was completed in 1997
Ascog Hall fernery, after restoration was completed in 1997
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Beloved of Victorian collectors, the fern has fallen out of fashion but it’s still a fascinating addition to any garden

Would you describe yourself as a pteridomaniac? Probably not, but travel back in time to the Victorian era and there were a lot of them about. Pteridomania was the term used to describe the national obsession with ferns which held gardeners and botanists from all walks of life in its thrall for decades. Many gardeners value ferns for their looks and ability to thrive in shady areas, but it’s fair to say most of us don’t go off digging them up or keeping them in glass cases in our front room. One person who knows more than most about pteridomania is Dr Sarah Whittingham, historian and author of a new book, Fern Fever (£35, Frances Lincoln).

Dr Whittingham’s own passion for ferns emerged on a trip to Scotland’s west coast. “As an architectural and garden historian I have always specialised in the 19th century,” she says. “So when I visited the west coast of Scotland in 1997 I was particularly keen to visit Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute. While staying on the island, I was standing outside a newsagent in Rothesay when my eye was caught by a small poster in the window advertising a Victorian fernery that was open to the public. I was already aware of the phenomena of pteridomania, and thought that this sounded too good an opportunity to miss.”

That poster led Whittingham to the fernery at Ascog Hall, restored from dereliction by its owners, the late Wallace and Katherine Fyfe. The Fyfes gave Whittingham a tour of their atmospheric fernery and there she discovered an impressive collection of ferns – researched by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, who had painstakingly endeavoured to copy the original collection. “This was possible because Benjamin Samuel Williams wrote an article about Ascog in the Gardeners’ Chronicle of 25 October 1879,” says Whittingham. “Williams described a Todea africana, as ‘the most wonderful fern I have ever seen’ and it is still to be found in the fernery.”

Whittingham was captivated by Ascog Hall and began to see why the Victorians fell in love with ferns. After Bute she travelled on to Glasgow to visit the then- unrestored Kibble Palace with its towering tree ferns. She says that fern fever had taken hold and she has been researching, writing and lecturing on the subject ever since. Her research has identified a number of factors which contributed to pteridomania. One was the discovery by John Lindsay at the end of the 18th century of how to grow ferns from spores. This was a significant factor in increasing the popularity of exotic ferns in Britain as previously if a plant died it could only be replaced by the costly introduction of another specimen from abroad.

Then there was the invention of the Wardian case by Dr Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward in the late 1820s. This decorative glass case, the forerunner of the terrarium, enabled people to grow ferns protected from the polluted air of Victorian towns and cities. Whittingham says that during the last quarter of the 18th century there had been a surge of interest in natural history, particularly botany. This resulted in the formation of clubs and societies, the writing of papers and pamphlets and the instigation of field excursions. It wasn’t long before people headed out in droves on fern- collecting adventures, with the aim of “capturing” rare specimens. As they waded through streams, over rocks and through rivers, accidents were common and over-collecting and even fern-stealing became rife.

“As well as being the heyday of natural history, the 19th century saw a huge rise in the popularity of gardening,” says Whittingham. “By 1851 more than half of Britain’s population was urban, and many of these town and city dwellers had their own little plots to tend at their newly built terraced houses or suburban villas. This fundamentally transformed the practice of gardening; it became not just a hobby for the rich, who employed staff to get their hands dirty, but also the passion of the middle classes. These new hands-on ‘amateur gardeners’ wanted to implement all the gardening styles that came along, including pteridomania.” Ferns were seen as bringing something of the “lost world” into towns and cities and as the 19th century progressed, commercial nurseries were constantly looking for new plants to sell to the ever-increasing numbers of gardeners.

Exotic ferns were cultivated by the rich who could afford to keep them in a heated environment, but native species could be collected for free by one and all. Ferneries took various forms, from those simple Wardian cases to glazed garden buildings or collections of ferns planted outside. This love of ferns increasingly became a part of everyday life. “If you decorated and furnished your house, went to the seaside, strolled in pleasure gardens, patronised the theatre and concerts, visited exhibitions, read novels, played music or spent time in hospital, you encountered ferns and ferneries,” says Whittingham. Despite the all-consuming power of ferns, their time in the spotlight eventually diminished.

Whittingham says nearly 100 titles on collecting and cultivating pteridophytes were published in England between 1837 and 1918, but the number of books about ferns became smaller with each passing decade. The number of fern varieties being discovered had also dropped away by the 1880s and changes in interior design and the introduction of electric lighting meant that Wardian cases were no longer essential or the height of fashion. “No craze lasts for ever,” says Whittingham, “it is human nature to become sick of something that was once all the rage. Pteridomania may have endured a lot longer than most infatuations, in its various guises, but eventually it was not an exception to this rule.”

The fever for ferns may have subsided, but they are still a popular garden plant and there are a number of places where you can see them displayed in all their glory. Whittingham’s pick of the best ferneries to visit in Scotland includes Ascog Hall on the Isle of Bute, the Kibble Palace at Glasgow Botanic Gardens, Benmore Botanic Garden near Dunoon and Manderston, near Duns. Visit these collections, but beware – you might find yourself gripped by pteridomania.

Fern Fever: The Story of Pteridomania by Sarah Whittingham is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £35.