Ashridge Blog & Recipes

Fanatical About Ferns

Pteridomania - the passion for ferns - swept through the Victorian era and is now sweeping through us. As we launch our carefully selected range, we look at the continuing fascination gardeners have with ferns and why they work so well in our gardens.

It's believed ferns date back before the mid-Devonian period, long before dinosaurs It's believed ferns date back before the mid-Devonian period, long before dinosaurs

Hardy, shade-loving and dating further back than dinosaurs, it is no wonder ferns remain a popular plant for gardeners but fewer were swept away by fern fever more so than the Victorians. Pteridomania - a term coined by the author of The Water Babies, Charles Kinglsey (referring to the Latin name for fern ‘Pterido’) - reached epidemic proportions in Victorian Britain in the 1850s to 1890s.

The “mania” was triggered by the invention of the Wardian case by amateur botanist and medic Dr Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward who designed a glass container - an early form of terrarium - that protected ferns and other exotic plants he grew from seed or spore from industrial smog. The cases swiftly captured the imagination of the elite.

Ferns in a wood Ferns in a wood

Ferns became marketed as “for the intelligent person” in the 1830s and quickly moved on to gain meritocratic appeal amongst all social classes and in particular women, who for once were allowed to pursue a hobby without a chaperone. (Also the fern’s reproductive elements were not on prominent display so it was considered a genteel botanical interest for women to follow.) Even the great Victorian novelist Charles Dickens saw it as a cure for his daughter’s “apathy”.

Fern hunting expeditions became popular so much so that some varieties became endangered and remain so today - the delightful Killarney Fern is on the endangered species list. Ferns started being represented in art everywhere - on wallpaper, ceramics, fabrics and a design imprint of them even made it onto custard biscuits.

Large outdoor ferneries became all the rage, some of which still exist today though most disappeared after WWII. And the British Pteridological Society, the society for fern enthusiasts was formed. It flourishes still today and is based in the Natural History Museum, London, no less.

Ferns are one of our most ancient species of plant: a fossil was found from the mid-Devonian period, some 383-393 million years ago, though it is thought that they existed even further back than that. Today the species that would have been familiar to dinosaurs no longer exists but ferns remain the second most diverse group of vascular plants on earth and moreover continue to be notable in garden design.

Fern Fossil Fern Fossil

City gardens are often small and overlooked, so ferns, which have little objection to shade, make great plant companions and can flourish in them. They are also fantastic for woodland areas and in those, damp shady stretches of rural gardens where the sun barely reaches. Pair them with other exotic plants and palms and you can create a great urban statement or soften with hostas, hellebores, astrantia, in rural areas just as they did in Victorian times. Pteridomania may no longer exist in its original feverish form but ferns still are important players in our gardens.

Take a look at our full range of ferns.

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