In Mr Blackwood’s Fabularium Mr Malachi Brown, who gets on the train at Tunbridge, is introduced to his fellow passengers as ‘the eminent pteridologist’. So what was pteridology and how did one become eminent in it? In 1855, the Rev Charles Kingsley, author of The Water Babies, wrote: 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.
These remarks seem to us highly sexist. They are also inaccurate. Fern mania crossed class and gender barriers. The collection of ferns drew enthusiasts from all social classes and it is said that “even the farm labourer or miner could have a collection of British ferns which he had collected in the wild and a common interest sometimes brought people of very different social backgrounds together”.
It began in 1829, when British surgeon and explorer Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward invented the Wardian case, a table top mini-greenhouse that kept exotic plants alive in the cold, damp British climate. (We know it as the terrarium.) His invention allowed botanist George Loddiges to build a huge hothouse in East London, which included a fern nursery. Even though the plant was associated with fairies and magic – “We have the receipt of fern seed: we walk invisible (Shakespeare, Henry IV Part I) – Loddiges knew that he needed to exaggerate the properties of ferns to attract visitors to his hothouse. Fern collecting, he claimed, showed intelligence; it also improved virility and mental health. With claims like that, who could resist becoming a collector?
New discoveries were published in periodicals, particularly The Phytologist: a Popular Botanical Miscellany which first appeared in 1844. Having been studied less than flowering plants, ferns were open to new sightings and recordings. That was undoubtedly part of their attraction. Another reason for the craze was that, with the development of the railways, the wetter western and northern parts of Britain – areas where ferns were most diverse and abundant – were becoming more accessible. So much so, in fact, that some species were collected to the point of extinction.
Ferns and fern motifs appeared everywhere: in homes, gardens, art and literature. Their images adorned rugs, tea sets, chamber pots, garden benches and even custard cream biscuits. Wardian cases soon became features of stylish drawing rooms all over Europe and the United States and helped spread not only the fern craze but the craze for growing orchids that followed. Ferns were also cultivated in fern houses and in outdoor ferneries.
Mr Malachi Brown likes to think of himself as a serious evolutionary biologist. But there is no money in serious evolutionary biology – at least not before Darwin published the Origin of Species in 1859 – so Mr Malachi Brown has, to his disgust, to earn a living by pandering to a popular fad.