‘An eminently beautiful Object is Fern’: The Romantics and the Victorian Fern Craze

By Sarah Whittingham
Of all the many passions and crazes in nineteenth-century gardening and natural history, none was as long lasting or as wide reaching as fern fever, when the plant held a popular fascination for much of society.

But this enthralment with the frond came out of nowhere; before the 1830s there was virtually no interest in collecting or cultivating native ferns. Even in the late eighteenth century, botanical or cultural references to the plant – such as when the poet William Cowper wrote of ‘the common overgrown with fern’ in The Task in 1785 – nearly always signified just one particular species: bracken (Pteridium aquilinum). That is, apart from among the Romantic poets.

Cowper’s innovative poem, with its focus on man, religion and nature, was a key influence on Coleridge. ‘This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison’, composed in the garden of his Nether Stowey neighbour Tom Poole in 1797, displays Coleridge’s burgeoning belief in the morally improving power of a love of nature. And in his initial – and in my opinion, more beautiful – version of the poem (in a letter to Robert Southey, 17 July 1797) he wrote:

‘. . .They, meantime,
My friends, whom I may never meet again,
On springy heath, along the hilltop edge,
Wander delighted, and look down, perchance,
On that same rifted dell, where many an ash
Twists its wild limbs beside the ferny rock,
Whose plumy ferns forever nod and drip
Sprayed by the waterfall. . . .’

Adding in a note: ‘The ferns that grow in moist places, grow five or six together and form a complete “Prince of Wales feather”—i.e. plumy.’ This sounds like the ostrich or shuttlecock fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), but that was only introduced into cultivation in Britain in 1760, and has been known in the wild only since about 1834. Coleridge was therefore most likely describing the lady fern. But in the version of the poem published in 1834, in The Poetical Works of S T Coleridge, the relevant passage reads:

‘And there my friends
Behold the dark green file of long lank weeds,
That all at once (a most fantastic sight!)
Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge
Of the blue clay-stone,’

This time Coleridge adds that the fern he is referring to is the Asplenium scolopendrium or hart’s tongue. And the description ‘long lank weeds’ fits this fern better than the lady fern.
Soon after moving to Greta Hall in the Lakes, in July 1800, Coleridge observed in one of his notebooks: ‘An eminently beautiful Object is Fern, on a hill side, scattered thick but growing single – and all shaking themselves in the wind –’. He also wrote to Samuel Purkis: ‘I hear his [his son Hartley’s] voice at this moment distinctly; he is below in the garden, shouting to some foxgloves and fern, which he has transplanted, and telling them what he will do for them if they grow like good boys!’

During her first spring in Grasmere Dorothy Wordsworth also made a garden around Dove Cottage by transplanting specimens that she found during walks in the local woods and on the fells. As well as common flowering plants, these included mosses, lichens and – almost certainly – ferns, making Dorothy one of the earliest people in the country to collect and cultivate native ferns.
Another was the Romantic poet John Clare, who started collecting ferns in the 1820s. Poetry, botanising and gardening were Clare’s greatest loves, and in his journals he records digging up ferns in the wild and planting them in his garden in Northamptonshire.

‘Oh! That we had a book of botany’, Dorothy wrote in her journal on 16 May 1800, and in August of that year William ordered William Withering’s An Arrangement of British Plants According to the Latest Improvements of the Linnaean System and an Introduction to the Study of Botany. Withering had added a volume devoted to non-flowering plants in the second edition of 1792.

Dorothy frequently consulted Withering’s, and wrote comments against the text. And it is from its pages that Coleridge derived his knowledge of the hart’s tongue fern. However, in October 1803 he wrote: ‘O surely I might make a noble Poem of all my Youth – nay of all my Life – – One section on plants & flowers, my passion for them, always deadened by their learned names. [my italics] – Yet ever to note those that have & may hereafter affect me –‘. For Clare too, Linnaeus’ taxonomy of plants was a ‘dark system.’

Wordsworth disseminated his views on the Lake District, and man’s part in protecting and enhancing it, in his Guide Through the District of the Lakes, first published as an introduction to a set of prints in 1810, and as a separate volume in 1822. In this book he wrote of bracken – ‘beds of luxuriant fern’ and ‘the brilliant and various colours of the fern’ – as adding to the attractions of the scenery.

But, more specifically, he also described ‘the intermixture of several species of small fern’ combining with mosses, lichens and ivies, their forms and colours providing ‘a source of inexhaustible admiration’ in the winter. And relates how the old walls lining lanes could be ‘almost wholly concealed by a rich facing of stone-fern.’ This is the rustyback fern, which likes to grow in lime mortar. Coleridge observed late in 1803: ‘The common Fern fades into an Orange / the Stone Fern into a rich Brown’.

In his poem Point Rash Judgment from Poems on the Naming of Places published in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800), Wordsworth also wrote of Osmunda regalis or the royal fern, which grows by the rock-pool at Dove Cottage and in Dora’s Field below Rydal Mount:

‘Many such there are,
Fair Ferns and Flowers, and chiefly that tall Fern
So stately, of the Queen Osmunda named;
Plant lovelier, in its own retired abode,
On Grasmere’s beach, than Naiad by the side
Of Grecian brook, or Lady of the Mere,
Sole-sitting by the shores of old romance.’

It appears that Dora Wordsworth followed in her father and aunt’s footsteps (in more ways than one) as in 1838 she remembered how, whilst visiting Tintern Abbey, she climbed up to ‘. . . the topmost of its walls round which I ran like a cat & gathered some fern . . .’ At the time of her visit Dora was staying with her mother’s younger brother, Thomas Hutchinson. His daughter – Sarah – was William Wordsworth’s god-daughter as well as his niece.

In 1841 William presented Sarah with an album in which to collect pressed plants. She filled it with mosses, and about twenty different ferns. In 1850 she recorded in her journal how she went in search of ferns by the waterfalls and in the woods above Rydal, and was ‘fortunate in finding some beauties.’ By this time the fern craze had taken firm hold of the nation – Charles Kingsley was to christen it Pteridomania just five years later – and the species were being rigorously classified and categorised with ‘learned names’. But its roots were in the Romantic Movement.

Dr Sarah Whittingham FSA is a writer and lecturer who specialises in the social history, architecture, and gardens of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 2012 Frances Lincoln published her book Fern Fever: The Story of Pteridomania, which has been described as the definitive work on the subject. Sarah has lectured widely on the fern craze, including giving the Bindman Talk, ‘Fern Fever in the Fells’, at the Wordsworth Trust on 9 June 2012. As well as writing articles on Pteridomania for many publications, she has appeared on various BBC radio and television programmes talking about it, most recently BBC 2’s Coast in July.

Sarah Whittingham