Every once in a while, it seems, I stumble upon something I had absolutely no idea existed. I remember discovering something called a “thumb drive” stashed in my friend’s pen, on which she’d stored everything she’d ever written, and I distinctly recall the first time I tried a roasted beet (why didn’t anybody tell me about the most delicious vegetable in the world?). Reading The Victorian Fern Craze by the highly-qualified writer and lecturer Sarah Whittingham was one of these moments, one of these special blips that caused a true case of head scratching and verbal claims of “WOW! I had no idea about this!”
This slender little book is aptly named. People really were crazy for ferns during the Victorian years, its gradual growth a perfect example of cultural snowball effect. Passion for gardening was filtering down from the rich into the middle classes of people, who wished to beautify their houses and back yards with small, precious plots. “They were assisted by technical and chemical advances,” explains Whittingham, “together with endless advice and instruction in a proliferation of new gardening literature.”
Passions combined with literature, then support from the church emerged, touting fern collecting as a moral, healthy, educational activity that might “lead through nature to nature’s God.” Young people loved to have a reason to go somewhere, anywhere, especially with the mind of digging under rocks and climbing into caves to reach a fern, and women found themselves with a special opportunity to mix with the opposite sex. This, on top of major strides in transport and housing of these special plants, brought ferns into the hearts and homes of Victorian England with abandon.
Whittingham spends a great deal of time speaking about the nature of the fern and its particular needs, and focuses particularly on the creation of a controlled environment meant to support their delicate constitutions. Invented by Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868), the Wardian Case was the result of years of experimentation and trial-and-error research into how one might keep a fern alive in a world of pollution, variable temperatures, and low lighting. The sealed, glazed glass boxes became very popular and grew in size and splendor, eventually turning into hothouses, plant conservatories, shadehouses, glasshouses that could be built into the side of existing homes. Some of the fancier tabletop Wardian cases might even include aquarium space, aviaries, or terrariums, and it became fashionable to keep animals alongside ferns in general (Henry Boyle kept alligators in his Lake District hothouse). These Wardian cases were a huge part of the fern craze, and Whittingham gives them the ample page space they deserve without boring the reading to death. In fact, the images and illustrations of the cases are quite extraordinary, and I found myself in another moment of, “Wow! Look how cool that is!” A Wardian case…who knew?
The book is, in general, expertly researched and chock full of inspiring photographs. While the writing can be a bit dry at times, the material is engaging and interesting, positively brimming with opportunities to absorb some out-of-the-ordinary knowledge. If you’ve ever wondered why every fashionable house in England has space for plants, or why ferns keep popping up in décor from all across the 19th century, this book is for you. One warning though: you’ll start to see ferns everywhere and you’ll want to talk about them when you do. Your friends may think you’re crazy, but you can just say, “Nope. I’m just crazy for ferns!”