Selection of the Month

Pteridomania, or Fern Madness

July, 2018
Special Collections Rare Book Collection

Book cover titled Choice ferns, plus image of fern showing in backgroundIf someone from Victorian Britain had stepped into the fern-filled forests of the Pacific Northwest, they would have thought they had arrived in paradise.

Though the Victorians had a keen interest in natural history in general, they had a special love of ferns. Their fondness was so great, in fact, that contemporary observer Charles Kingsley coined the term pteridomania (“fern madness”) to describe the phenomenon. In the 1830s, amateur and professional botanists began gravitating toward this still relatively unstudied group of plants. The development of the railway system in Britain fueled the craze by making it easier travel to the wildest and wettest parts of the island, where ferns thrived.

Not content to enjoy ferns only in their natural habitat, Victorians found ways to bring them into their homes. A type of terrarium known as a Wardian case, named after its inventor Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, protected plants from the air pollution of nineteenth-century London and other industrial cities. Those who could afford it also kept fern houses (greenhouses specially designed for ferns) or outdoor ferneries where levels of heat, shade, and moisture could be carefully controlled.

Before long, ferns had worked their way into decorative art. From wallpaper, textiles, and ceramics to iron railings, greeting cards, and gravestones, there was hardly anything the Victorians thought ferns unfit to adorn. 

illustrated page from one book, and a medieval manuscript fragmentAnother way that ferns made their way from the wild into people’s daily lives was through books, which were essentially paper museums that provided both edification and enjoyment. A number of fern books dating back as far as 1785 are currently on display in the Special Collections Reading Room as part of our new mini-exhibit, Picturing Plants: Botanical Illustration from the Rare Book Collection. Come up to Special Collections on the sixth floor of Wilson Library and have a look!

Michael Taylor

Special Collections Librarian