Wild About Pteridomania

If you were a young Victorian woman of a certain sort, chances were you spent your time hiking through woodlands and scrambling up cliffs in search of a very particular prize—ferns. 

A group of ferns growing in a rocky outcrop.
Cliff fern, Woodsia scopulina. Photo by Jim Morefield, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the Victorian period, from the 1850s to the 1890s and up until the first World War, people were mad for ferns. They went on weekend expeditions to collect them, bringing them home as houseplants or pressing them to keep in albums. Fern dealers emerged, offering ferns for sale to avid collectors, and books, magazines, and other periodicals described the latest and most noteworthy species. Ferns were everywhere, and a new word—pteridomania—was coined to describe the frenzy. 

A black and white illustration featuring two women and a man, each wearing Victorian clothing. They are harvesting ferns from a woodland. Other figures are visible in the background.
Helen Allingham, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Victorian passion for ferns was launched in 1829 with the invention of the “Wardian case,” a proto-terrarium that allowed plants to be grown indoors. The new technology wasn’t the only reason Victorians were obsessed with ferns. At the time, both men and women had a deep interest in natural history, and observing and documenting the natural world—particularly through painting and illustration—was an acceptable hobby for women. 

A black and white illustration of an orante stand or table. On top is a glass greenhouse, multiple ferns and other plants can be seen inside.
A Wardian case. Internet Archive Book Images via Wikimedia Commons

What was it about ferns?

There were a number of factors that led to the massive popularity of these plants. Ferns were regarded as both mysterious and magical and were connected to both fairies and female sexuality. At the time of the fern craze, no one knew how ferns reproduced—their dust-like spores and lack of flowers only added to their mystery. Victorian Britain was also a time of intense industrialization, and a hunger for nature and outdoor spaces undoubtedly added to the rush to collect these plants.

However, it may have been social marketing that pushed the frenzy over the edge. British naturalist George Loddiges built an impressive hothouse to display his collection. In order to recoup the cost, he needed to sell tickets. To drum up interest, he claimed ferns were associated with intelligence, virility, and mental health. Who could resist?

A close-up of fern fronds that are in the process of unfurling.
Pteridophyta speices by Aspi67, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There was a social aspect to fern collecting as well. Unattached young women, who were heavily chaperoned in other areas of their lives, were allowed to pursue their passion for ferns with minimal supervision. 

Whether it be fern collecting or boy bands, then as now, young women were criticized for their passion and were accused of indulging in a hobby that bored those around them. Author Charles Kingsley offered this slightly back-handed observation:

“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.”

The freedom that fern-collecting gave these young women can’t be understated. In a world where most activities were constrained by expectations and chaperones, it’s not difficult to imagine the appeal for Victorian women that came from the freedom of being unchaperoned, having adventures, and indulging in the occasional tryst beneath the bracken. 

Not solely for young women, ferns were everywhere in Victorian culture. They adorned wallpaper and clothing and could be seen on everything from furniture to cookies. 

A swatch of Victorian wallpaper with a floral motif in greens, blues, and reds. Ferns dominate the background.
Fern motif on William and Morris wallpaper, Morris & Co., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Fern collecting wasn’t always a benign hobby. Several people died—plunging to their deaths as they climbed cliffs in search of rare species, and fern populations were damaged from over-collecting. 

The passion for fern-collecting began to die out at the end of the Victorian period. Despite this, there is a direct connection between the Victorians’ passion for ferns and the houseplant you have in your window. So, the next time you’re watering your Monstera, think about the Victorian women who cultivated their passion for ferns, and brought them into their homes.

Potted ferns are for sale in a nursery.
Nephrolepis exaltata in a nursery. Photo by David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

For more about the Victorian passion for ferns, give Sarah Whittingham’s book Fern Fever: The story of Pteridomania a try.