My sandal stumbled on an uprooted sidewalk brick—for the umpteenth time. Saving face once again, I bent down to inspect the green ferns randomly growing out of the bricks around this historic home’s foundation.
Now I’ve always failed at growing ferns myself in any household I’ve had. But in a place like Savannah, Georgia they grow in a wanton manner right out of wall fissures and sidewalk crevices. Fickle fronds might totally reject one gardener even under painstaking attention; yet elsewhere they grow like weeds unattended. Fiddle heads and fiddlesticks.
If you’ve an inordinate fetish for ferns and history–and why wouldn’t you—there’s a wonderful book titled The Victorian Fern Craze by Sarah Whittingham (2009). I had the pleasure of discovering it at the Frick Museum store in New York City. The book’s back cover points out, that in Britain, Pteridomania (fern madness) proliferated, especially between the years 1837 and 1914. Quite a long time for a fern fad. . .or any fad for that matter.
The history of fern collecting, cultivating and displaying ferns is researched and thoroughly illustrated in this book. The publisher summarizes: “Whittingham traces the story of the fern craze, from the invention of the Wardian case, through tales of fern forays, to the creation of verdant ferneries in private homes and gardens.”
And what a variety of whimsical names ferns have: Pepperworts, Horsetails, Adder’s tongue, Moonwort, Maidenhair, Brittle Bladder Fern, Spleenwort, Polypody. I was intrigued by the mention of the use of ferns as thatch or their ashes used for lye soap and glass. Ferny places to visit today are listed as well, including the “stumpery” at Dyffryn Gardens in Wales and the grotto/fernery at Old Warden Park.
The history includes mention of the Itinerant Fern Vendor, aka Professional Fern Touts who would scour the countryside for specimens, and then hawk them from city door to city door. And it should be noted that, at least in the 1870s, fern-collecting was “a good excuse for mixing with members of the opposite sex.” One can never have too many excuses.
The Victorian Fern Craze, published by Shire Library where you’ll find this and other interesting publications. http://www.shirebooks.co.uk
Nancy R. Peck