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3 June 2020updated 29 Jul 2021 7:05am

I am not the first gardener to have an intense passion for ferns – the Victorians were obsessed, and many fell prey to pteridomania

Nothing compares, in elegance and vital energy, to the ferns.

By John Burnside

There are certain plants that, at different times in a gardener’s life, capture the imagination, often to the point of obsession. In my first job, I would plant hebes wherever I could find space in the borders while, in the glasshouse, I put together an impressive collection of around 50 peperomias, only to lose them all, in a single night, when the power shut down over Christmas. Such enthusiasms have usually been short-lived, but there are still plants that never cease to fascinate me. For example, who can resist the iris in its myriad forms, from the lushest of tall bearded cultivars to the exquisite, often tiny species that dot the scree slopes of Syria and Tajikistan? 

That said, nothing compares, in elegance and vital energy, to the ferns. If I could live out the rest of my life wherever I wished, it would be close to one of those verdant ferneries that Victorian gardeners loved so much, compact and vivid Edens, like the Fern Passage at Pennsylvania’s Longwood estate, or the fern house at Chelsea Physic Garden, where Wilfred Owen is said to have spent his last afternoon in England. In his great poem, “Miners”, composed not long before he died, Owen, an amateur geologist, would find “a tale of leaves/And smothered ferns, /Frond-forests, and the low sly lives/Before the fauns” in the whispers and sighs of the coal burning in his hearth. 

It is those prehistoric “frond-forests” that some deep, possibly saurian layer of my brain recovers whenever I stand in a fernery and drink in the dark-green air. For me, there is something inherently wild about ferns. They serve as a reminder that we humans are Johnny-come-latelies to this evolutionary game; while we stumble around squandering everything we can lay our hands on, they quietly persist, through aeons, their roots steeped in the Devonian, almost 400 million years ago. 

The Victorians took ferns very seriously. With the advent of the Wardian case (a terrarium-like structure invented in the late 1820s by Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward to protect valuable imported specimens from the London smog) and illustrated guides to hand – Shirley Hibberd’s The Fern Garden (1869), say, or Thomas Moore’s The Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (1855) – many fell prey to “pteridomania” or “fern fever” and, soon, the most fashionable London homes had cabinets of primal greenery. Initially, the most-prized specimens were high-value imports; later, as the craze spread, people began to explore the British countryside in day-long fern-searching parties (these were especially popular amongst young ladies, as chaperoning rules were often relaxed for such expeditions). 

Pteridomania is now a historical curiosity, but its spirit continues in James Merryweather’s Britain’s Ferns: A Field Guide to the Clubmosses, Quillworts, Horsetails and Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland, just published in the Princeton Wild Guides series. Beautifully illustrated, with each species described in precise, evocative prose, this book is a treasury of the mysterious and diverse pteridophytes in these islands. It is an essential book for every gardener’s library – and, who knows? Perhaps a resurgence of fern fever will see a new respect for ferns and their habitats, which, according to recent International Union for the Conservation of Nature reports, continue to be “devastated” by landowners across Europe. 

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Next week: Stefan Buczacki on gardening

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This article appears in the 03 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe