by Annette Bainbridge
In the mid- to late-nineteenth century, New Zealand and the rest of the British Empire was swept up in a nature craze that permeated popular culture in a way that we would now describe as ‘going viral’. This was ‘pteridomania’, or ‘the fern craze’.
New advances in technology. such as the invention of the Wardian glass case that could transport growing plants safely over long distances and the increasing travel efficiency of booming railroads. meant most people were able to participate in plant collecting as never before. But why ferns? What was their appeal for British settlers?
Ferns had a special place in British plant lore. Connected particularly with woodlands, ruined buildings and craggy hillsides, they were part of a natural environment that many Britons loved, but in their urbanised industrial cities were no longer able to access easily.
British folklore linked ferns with the magic of midsummer’s eve and fairies. The lack of knowledge of the reproductive cycle of the fern led to old rural beliefs that the fern reproduced invisibly. Thus, it was considered to have the magical ability to render humans invisible too. For all these reasons ferns had a romance and magic to them quite apart from their innate structural beauty.
Ferns were also connected with the far-flung exoticism of the empire, with Australia and New Zealand particularly well-known for their own fern species, distinguished by variations in size and colour unknown in British native ferns. The sheer flamboyance and size of some specimens such as the silver New Zealand tree fern (Cyathea dealbata) made ferns collected from Australasia much sought after.
Despite the amount of wealthy private collectors and male-dominated institutions involved in fern collecting, pteridomania became particularly connected with women. The very thing that Victorian critics of the craze complained about in its effects on women were almost certainly the very things that made it so attractive to females of all ages. It caused them to act in ‘unseemly ways’, romping around the countryside, scrambling down banks and hills. Fern collecting parties were often a mix of the sexes so they were often unsupervised in secluded woods with young men (gasp!). Lastly, of course these (mainly male) critics worried that it taxed women’s delicate brains by forcing them to analyse the plants they were collecting and grasp the meaning of difficult Latin words to label them.
Here in New Zealand, women seized upon the opportunity to become involved in the popular craze. Fern collecting expeditions and parties into the bush were common and keen gardeners such as Emily Acland and Jessy Rhodes of Mt Peel and Bluecliff Stations in Canterbury brought back beautiful specimens for their own gardens from the nearby bush. Public parks also benefited from the enthusiasm of women collectors, such as Miss Brown of Mount Thomas Station who donated a rare fern that she’d discovered to the Christchurch Botanic Gardens.
Finding ferns was not always a happy experience, however, in New Zealand’s more rugged terrain. When Mrs Giblin of Hawkes Bay went on a fern collecting expedition with her husband and some friends to Waihi Falls, she watched with horror as their friend Colonel Herrick plummeted to his death from atop the waterfall and she and her husband had to wade into the water to drag him out in the hopes of saving his life. She and the Colonel’s daughter then waited with the body for a night in the bush while the men went to get help to have the body removed.
Obviously it was wise to be cautious given the dangers of the New Zealand bush, but as fern collecting was so popular globally it was quickly seized upon by New Zealand’s infant tourism industry as a moneymaker. In tourist areas, such as Queenstown and Te Anau, even the local grocers provided equipment for fern collecting such as trowels and specially designed tins for posting the plants to various national and international destinations. Scottish tourist Constance Astley visited New Zealand in 1897 and was pleasantly surprised at how slick the entire tourism operation was at dealing with her fern collecting needs. “There were simply any amount of dear little fern plants near the Ada Lake and if I could have foreseen such undreamt of facilities for sending them off I would have taken more trouble to get them. They actually supplied one with boxes for keeping them in on board [the steam ship]”
For women who didn’t want to have to take care of living specimens in a garden, a popular way of participating in the fern craze was by buying or making their own fern album. Often involving drying or occasionally sketching various fern specimens, the popularity of these albums led to various newspaper articles aimed at women on ways to use items readily available in the kitchen to preserve ferns more efficiently. New Zealand women produced some of the most internationally acclaimed fern albums in the world. Mary Anne Armstrong of Dunedin combined artistic composition with careful scientific labelling and cataloguing in her fern albums. She displayed her work at international exhibitions and won awards for it. Her book ‘The South Pacific Fern Album’ garnered international attention and praise, although due to high production costs was not a commercial success.
The downside to all this interest was that many fern habitats were damaged or destroyed in a landscape already transformed by settler’s land clearances and the felling of native bush and forest. To this day in some parts of New Zealand, such as the Otago Peninsula, the fern populations have never recovered. It is a reminder that the interests and activities of women settlers could have as much of a transformative effect on our landscapes, for good or ill, as those of the male settlers. The history of the fern craze is an important reminder of both how beautiful and unique New Zealand’s plant species are and how fragile our environment is and was.
There are many elements of the fern craze that explain its popularity with New Zealand women in the nineteenth century. It provided an intellectual challenge, it linked women with the physical freedom of the outdoors, and it made women feel included in the world’s wider scientific and natural history communities. Its fashionable status was enhanced by the international rise of the art nouveau movement which emphasised the beauty of plants and flowers in decorating motifs on everything from furniture to wallpaper. This coincided with the rise of a new feeling of national identity that emerged in the 1880s and ’90s in New Zealand. The new sense of nationalism was strongly linked with New Zealand’s unique indigenous flora and fauna, such as the kiwi and the silver fern. The world wanted spectacular ferns and we had them in abundance. By participating in a global craze, New Zealand women found pride, belonging and interest in their own local landscapes.
– Papers Past website
– The Gardens of Canterbury, Thelma Strongman
– Fern Fever: The Story of Pteridomania, Sarah Whittingham