Victorian Botany: Ferns

Fern album cover (1875) created for Thomas Cranwell; Te Papa Museum of New Zealand.

Lynn Barber’s (1980) The Heyday of Natural History deals with many aspects of the Victorian age’s interest in nature.  One manifestation was a series of fads for particular plants, among them ferns.  This was sparked in part by the work of a surgeon in Jamaica, John Lindsay, who successfully grew ferns from spores.  Until then the propagation of these plants was something of a mystery because they obviously weren’t seed bearing.  Most ferns needed a moist environment and so the development of Wardian cases, discussed in the last post, made them much easier to keep alive.  Glasshouses or conservatories were another craze by mid-century.  While the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew built a massive Palm House, smaller versions, often built onto houses, soon appeared.  Along with the popular but hard to grow palms, these structures filled with ferns and toward the end of the century, orchids, another plant group that had slowly yielded up the secrets of their propagation (Endersby, 2016). 

Ferns were the easiest of this triumvirate to keep alive, and they could be easily observed and collected on forays into the countryside (Whittingham, 2009).  As with most fads, there were soon books on ferns aimed at a variety of audiences.  Thomas Moore was an expert on these plants and wrote a low-cost guide that fueled their popularity.  He was also the author of a much more expensive publication, the nature-printed Guide to the Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855) in two volumes.  The prints were made by Henry Bradbury using a technique he devised that involved pressing ferns between a steel and a lead plate so the frond left an imprint on the softer lead.  The plates were printed with colored inks, essentially green for the fronds and brown for the rhizomes.  Obviously, this was a time-consuming and expensive process with a limited run, so the books were only available to the wealthy, but thanks to the Biodiversity Heritage Library, we can all enjoy them today, virtually if not physically. 

Needless to say, many of the more serious fern hunters not only tried to grow the plants, but also to make specimens from them.  It was standard to paste down the fronds with the spore side up, or at least to show both sides of the frond.  Many of the botanically minded were catholic in their tastes and collected broadly in an area, pressing flowering plants as well as ferns; others were more focused.  For those who wanted collections without the collecting, there were exsiccatae available, some geared to the botanist and others to the amateur.  Fern albums were often created in areas where ferns were most plentiful such as in the warmer and rainier parts of southern Britain and in Ireland.  However, it was in New Zealand where the greatest number of fern albums were produced.  This becomes clear in Fern Albums and Related Material by Michael Hayward and Martin Rickard (2019).  It’s a publication of the British Pteridological Society and one of my favorite books at the moment.  After all, it’s about herbaria and its full of images.

Hayward and Rickard have done a wonderful job of tracking down albums in herbaria, libraries, and museums.  The time when most of these albums were produced was relatively early in New Zealand’s colonial development; it was recognized as a British colony in 1840 with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between 600 Māori chieftains and the British.  The landscape of New Zealand is very different from Australia.  This nation of islands is wetter and cooler, more similar to Britain and more conducive to the growth of ferns.  In fact, New Zealand was almost covered with endemic fern species, as colonists realized when they began to clear the land for agriculture.  Producing albums, mostly for British buyers, became a way to raise extra cash.  The variety Hayward and Rickard present indicates there were several different markets.  Some collections have plain paper or cardboard covers, with labeled specimens pasted to the pages.  One style was to add moss to the bottom of the stipe, also a practice of the British botanist Isaac Balfour.  The more costly albums had bordered pages and leather covers embossed with gold.  In Auckland, Thomas Cranwell produced some of the most elaborate creations.  He teamed up with German furniture carvers who made covers from wood of the native kauri trees of the Agathis genus.  Some covers even had intricate veneers.  They were works of art, and were obviously aimed at Britain’s upper classes.  New Zealanders themselves could not have afforded them and probably wouldn’t be interesting in preserved ferns that they could see every day.  Other British colonies including Australia, India, and Jamaica got into the fern album business, but not to the same extent.  Each had a unique take, with the Jamaican versions more about artistic placement of unlabeled specimens and even displays of artfully placed fronds from several different species—definitely works of art rather than science.  Fern albums were not as popular in the United States, but Sadie Price, a naturalist in Kentucky (see earlier post), published a booklet with each black-and-white drawing of a fern opposite a blank page where the user could paste in the relevant specimen. 

References

Barber, L. (1980). The Heyday of Natural History. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Endersby, J. (2016). Orchid: A Cultural History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hayward, M., & Rickard, M. (2019). Fern Albums and Related Material. London: British Pteridological Society.

Whittingham, S. (2009). The Victorian Fern Craze. Oxford: Shire.

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