Field of Science

Do you have Pteridomania?

On the title page of her book Fern Fever: The Story of Pteridomania Sarah Whittingham informs us of the following definitions.
"Pteris Greek word for a fern, derived from pteron, meaning feather or wing. Pteridophytes The ferns and fern allies. Pteridologist One who studies ferns scientifically. Pteridomania Fern madness. Pteridomaniac One who suffers fern madness."
I just started exploring this book written about the Victorian obsession with ferns. It is a large coffee-table sized book with a myriad of color images and photos of all things fern. The introduction covers how the fern craze began in the 1850's with collectors traveling the world and sending ferns back to England for cultivation. With the invention of the Wardian case, a small terrarium, ferns were brought into people's homes. At the same time many authors were publishing books about growing ferns and the types of ferns native to Britain. Naturalist and gardeners alike could not get enough of them. Ferns even made it into fashion as a design embellishment on dresses. 

I think that it is going to be a fun and educational read. I would recommend it for anyone who is already obsessed with ferns or would like to join in the craze. It will also be appealing to the history-minded and lovers of the Victorian era.   

At this time, science was the realm of mostly learned, wealthy white men. Women with botanical interests, also white and wealthy, collected, drew, and dried plant specimens under the purview of a gentle hobby. They knew little about how ferns reproduced. One fantastical idea was that they flowered only once per year and the spores could only be collected at night. Around the same time Wilhelm Hofmeister was just publishing his findings on the alternation of generations and plant life cycles. Interesting to think how far science has come both in our knowledge about plants and increased inclusiveness of people from diverse backgrounds. 

I leave you with a poem that Sarah Whittingham includes in her book on page 40. I especially like it because it contains a shout-out to my favorite ferny friends, the mosses.  

Auld Botany Been was wont to jog
Thro' rotten slough and quagmire bog 
O'er brimful dykes and marshes dank, 
Where Jack o' Lanterns play and prank,   
To seek a cryptogameous store 
Of mosses and carex and fungus hoare, 
Of ferns and brakes and such-like sights
 As tempt out scientific weights
On winter's day; but most his joy
Was finding what's called Osman's Roy.
- Plues A Summer Study of Ferns  


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