Fern Fever

by Sarah Whittingham

Publisher:  Frances Lincoln Ltd (2012)
ISBN 978-0-7112-3070-5

Hardback  £35


When I first moved to Cornwall I was impressed by the number of ferns growing in my garden and indeed still have to remove many as invasive weeds, but I have learned to love them for their elegance. However, my interest in these plants is nothing like the Victorian passion for ferns of all types described in this carefully researched and magnificently illustrated volume by the historian, Sarah Whittingham, who was assisted by members of the Devon Gardens Trust.

Until the late 18thC, when a two-volume work on British ferns was published, the public knew very little about ferns; an increased interest may well have resulted as a consequence of the ‘picturesque’ movement which advocated having caves or grottoes in the ‘wild’ landscape; the presence of ferns certainly enhanced the ‘Gothic’ appearance of such structures. At about the same time, the exploratory voyages of Captains Cook and Bligh resulted in many new species of plants arriving in this country. Their successful transportation over the long distances involved was mostly due to the use of Wardian cases. These portable greenhouses proved invaluable in providing a controlled, moist atmosphere, not only for the import of many different plants, but also for subsequent cultivation of many types of fern, and subsequently were a feature of many Victorian homes. However they were bulky and early plant hunters sought in vain for ‘seed’; they did not understand how plants without flowers could reproduce. The discovery that ‘fern seeds’ (i.e. spores) were the basis of ferns’ reproductive processes meant that the introduction of many more types of fern became possible. There followed an explosion in the importation of ferns from many parts of the world; the great plant collections all had their ferneries, but the use of the Wardian cases meant that Victorian sitting-rooms could have their fern displays. Greenhouse walls were constructed with special pockets for fern cultivation; larger gardens had special ‘ferneries’, a sort of sunken greenhouse, often with rockeries and a stream running through. Some of these remain and a list at the end indicates some places where they may be viewed (although there are some in Cornwall that are not listed). Many gardens, particularly in the South West, where glass protection is not necessary, also have fern grottoes or valleys.

But the enthusiasm for ferns was not restricted to their cultivation; it resulted in an outpouring of publications about all aspects of ferns. More than 600 publications are listed at the end of this book. ‘Fern fever’ fed into the then popular fantasies about fairies who were thought to live in ‘ferny glens’. Moreover, the elegant profile of ferns was used as a design motif for many different objects ranging from textiles, marquetry in furniture, cut glass, jewellery, ceramics, and even cigarette cards and biscuits. This book provides an enjoyable, well-written and comprehensive guide to a strange obsession.

Alison Newton