On How Ferns Can Mesmerize Us
During this period, the English society fell under the enchanting influence of ferns, which starred in botanical romances and crimes.
Perhaps it is the way their branches move with the wind, the elegant shadows their leaves cast upon walls, or the way in which their supple rhizomes unwrap ever so slowly; but there is something in ferns that can ignite the most exquisite infatuation. And this is precisely what they did at a given point in history.
During the 19th century, England fell pray to the strangest of ailments: the fern fever, an intense obsession for all sorts of pteridophytes. Crystal houses were built all over the nation; brilliant temples to house the botanical jewels that occupied a great part of the Victorian minds. (Before, the tulip fever occupied that place.)
The fern fever may perhaps be understood based on a simple experiment: if one observes ferns for a long time, or if one visits a pteridophyta greenhouse, when one closes one’s eyes one will continue to see the shapes of their branches, perhaps not unlike someone who persistently plays chess and upon closing his eyes sees the board. Hence the “fernmania” invaded not just Victorian gardens but also made its way into art books, literature, houses; it inspired hundreds of botanical crimes and even some love stories. ––Victorians organized nocturnal reunions to go hunting for rare ferns, and these would often derive in matrimony or “pteridoromances” among the explorers. The obsession was named “pteridomania,” from Latin pterido for fern.
But the origin of the trend is the true jewel. In her book Fern Fever, Sarah Wittingham traces the beginning of fernmania to three friends who fell deeply in love with these plants around 1829. Nathaniel Ward, a doctor and aficionado horticulturist, became frustrated for his inability to grow the ferns he loved, so he created the “Wardian case”: an early type of greenhouse, ideal for the cultivation of exotic ferns.
Later, his assistant George Loddiges opened a fern hospital in Hackney, in east London. There, since ferns did not have the flashiness and popular appeal of their rivals the flowers, he spread the brilliant rumor (although it may contain a great deal of truth) that the taste and love for ferns was an unequivocal sign of intelligence.
In 1840, inspired by Ward’s and Loddiges’ efforts, Edward Newman published a book that praised the attributes and the distinguished pleasures evoked by ferns. A History of British Ferns was the only thing the period needed to fall at the feet of these beautiful plants. The book was reedited countless times and showed off in the fine houses of the English elite —perfect for the Victorians’ characteristic enthusiasm for amateur scientists.
Soon after this, ferns became a cultural phenomenon. To own a collection —whether grown at home or organized in the popular “fern albums” — was a coveted symbol of social status. The fern fever even detonated a botanical crime-wave. During the 1800s and 1890s, an eruption of crimes took place in which rare specimens were stolen from private lands to collect or sell them for sums equivalent to £1,000 per plant. Soon, pteridophytas became central to social gatherings and served as cupids between men and women who shared the same fever.
But, in the 20th century, the aesthetic romance between men and ferns decreased. “It’s impossible to guess the reason”, states historian Sarah Wittingham. “There was simply a rejection of the Victorian era.” For ferns, however, there is still hope. Researchers have discovered that they give soil its fertility back and, even if not everyone notices, pteridophytes can be found all over cities, casting sinister and elegant shadows on the walls that frame them.
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