plant obsessions, ferns, shady plants, botany, garden plants, horticulture, inspiration, design, irish

Front cover of jacket

If you have been a regular visitor to garden shows or plant fairs over the last decade or so, you could be excused for thinking that our obsession with ferns is a recent horticultural phenomenon.  In particular, the tree ferns from New Zealand, such as, Dicksonia antartica and Dicksonia squarrosa became for a while almost de rigueur in architecturally orientated show gardens or indeed as talking points in any well-heeled garden design.  And, despite a couple of cold winters in the last three significantly setting back the tree fern trend, it appears that the interest in ferns is set to continue with whole nurseries dedicating themselves to production of our fronded friends.

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New Zealand fern in my Bloom 2008 show garden inspired by Mount Usher

But if you had indeed assumed that this was a new phenomenon, and you could be forgiven for doing so as heretofore explained, you would be very wrong for our current interest is but a mere fad in comparison to the obsessive compulsive behaviour of our forebears, the Victorians.  For they were the ones for whom the term Pteridomania or ‘fern madness’ was coined (in 1855 by Rev. Charles Kingsley).  And this craze is what is described so meticulously, scholastically and I think with a personal passion and reverence by Sarah Whittingham in her book.

This is a somewhat academic essay on her topic, she is after all a Doctor of Architectural History at the University of Bristol, but it is also an absorbing read for those of us who like stories about people and society and our quirky needs and fixations. It is also softened by the charming section headings: ‘The Joy of Spores’ and ‘Beauties, Curiosities and Monstrosities’ being but two.  There is also a chapter entitled ‘Ferns and Fairies.’  And the book is beautifully researched and presented.

It is infused throughout with a wonderful collection of historical images including the relevant plant hunters, book covers of the ferny literature of the time and botanical illustrations as well as recent photographs of ferneries, rockeries and gardens surviving from that period.  But what makes this book most interesting is the understanding that the author gives to the way in which the fern penetrated the very psyche of the society at the time.  Pteridomania, which incredibly covers a period from 1837 to 1914 (could our modern minds obsess for so long a time), new no bounds when it came to sex, age or class, and although quintessentially a British habit, was taken up around the world.  The image of the fern inspired paintings, adorned buildings, furnishings and household objects, cards and illustrations as well as moving writers and poets, including Wordsworth, to fernly praise and metaphor.

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Shuttelcock fern growing en masse in Hidcote gardens of the Cotswolds, UK (my pic.)

My only criticism of this book is that it is slightly too large, too heavy and too smart to take to bed, which for me would be the best place to become fully absorbed in to this pteridific (my word) world.  In terms of presentation, the book has characteristics of both coffee table book and academic library text.  It is highly priced at £35 but I hope that horticulture students will have access to the book via their college libraries.  If not, that they might find time to sneak a read of the copy that their parents will surely have on show on the sitting-room table.  There is a huge amount of inspiration here and I am sure that this beautiful and somewhat amusing botanical analysis of an era will help to unfurl a new generation of fern lovers.

‘Fern Fever: The Story of Pteridomania’ by Sarah Whittingham, Published by Frances Lincoln, London 2012

book review, ferns, garden design, collecting plants, Victorian obsession

Rear sleeve of the book