Victorian Fern Fever

22 March 2024


22 March 2024


The Victorians too couldn’t get enough of plant life, one of the most popular plants by far was the fern. But what sparked this 'fern fever'?

Britain’s fascination with house plants and gardening as a hobby grew over the lockdown period, with the number of house plants bought in 2021 doubling in comparison to 2019.

Our love for plants, however, is not limited by time or place – the Victorians too couldn’t get enough of plant life. The 19th century saw a huge increase in gardening literature offering endless advice and instruction, as well as showcasing the latest gardening craze or ‘must-have’ plants. Thousands of new species flooded into the country as plant hunters and collectors scoured the expanding British Empire, while commercial nurseries also saw opportunities to market new plants to the growing number of consumers thirsting for the latest horticultural delights.

One of the most popular plants by far was the fern. So much so that in 1855 in his book ‘Glaucus, or the Wonders of the Shore’, Charles Kingsley coined the term ‘pteridomania’ meaning fern mania.

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This obsession was particularly popular among the upper and middle classes who considered themselves amateur botanists as well as eager gardeners.  Fern collecting was an accepted female pursuit and considered a pleasant, harmless hobby for women to enjoy. Many middle-class hostesses abandoned their usual afternoon tea parties in favour of organised picnics to collect ferns.

Most fern lovers wanted a fernery in which to grow them – either an outside glasshouse or an indoor glass case. For those who wished to display their ferns in the home, a ‘Ward’s case’ (now known as a Wardian Case) became the height of fashion. Decorative Ward’s cases were ideal for ferns and other glazed structures, such as bell glasses, were also advertised in the horticultural press – some containing miniature landscapes or fossils and shells, as well as the ferns themselves.

Generally considered to have been at its height between 1850 and 1890 the fern craze eventually petered out, as all crazes do, although ferns continued to be popular into the Edwardian period. But, as ever in the story of horticulture and so much else in society, it was the First World War or World War I that finally brought the craze to a close.


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