Sometime in the midst of the Victorian era the prim, priggish society was gripped by a craze, or obsession even, for … ferns. Everything from ornaments to gravestones from the mid to late 19th century bear the decorative motif of the fern plant. Victorians just bloody loved ferns.
The term pteridomania, meaning fern craze or fern madness, was coined by a Charles Kingsley in 1855 to describe those whose ‘daughters, perhaps, ha[d] been seized with the prevailing ‘Pteridomania’…and wrangl[ed] over unpronounceable names of species (which seem different in each new Fern-book that they buy) … and yet [it cannot be denied] 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, crochet and Berlin-wool.’
As an activity in which people from all social backgrounds could partake, fern collecting is believed to have helped form many unlikely friendships across the class spectrum - everyone could take part, from the serious scientist to amateurs who enjoyed collecting merely as a hobby. Fern plants would be pressed into albums, kept alive in wardian cases, painted, sculptured, used as stencils, and affixed to objects as decorations. As interesting as the everyday fern plant evidently was to the Victorians, odd-looking monstrosities, as they were called, such as the curled up Polystichum setiferum, were always of particular interest.
The sport was also potentially dangerous as people risked life and limb to get their hands on rare breeds. The body of William Williams, a botanical guide, was found at the foot of a cliff in Wales in 1861 after he attempted to collect Alpine Woodsia. The zealousness of the Victorians has also left a number of species in danger of extinction.
[Sources: Image: "Gathering Ferns" by Helen Allingham, from The Illustrated London News, July 1871 | Pteridomania]