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Friday, 16 July 2021

Victorian Fern Madness and Wardian Cases

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Picture 7
One of the many interesting items in our Long Room which was once Kylemore Castle’s Breakfast room and for many years a study hall for the boarders who attended school at Kylemore is this pretty Victorian era Wardian Case.
The case has been beautifully planted for us by our Head Gardener Anja Gohlke in a style very fitting for it’s Victorian heritage. These cases were developed specially for housing ferns indoor and were part of what was coined as ‘pteridomania’ or fern madness by author Charles Kinglsey in 1855. This referred to what was indeed a craze, as amateur naturalists both male and female clamoured to collect, press, sketch and indeed grow ferns of all varieties.


 
The Wardian case in Kylemore’s Long Room (above left)
The craze was not limited to the collecting of ferns as ferns also became a highly fashionable motif, appearing in everything from plaster mouldings, to wallpaper, chamber pots and even the humble custard cream!

A custard cream biscuit with its distinctive fern motif
Many books were published on the subject of ferns, educating readers on identification, and propagation and where to find certain specimens. Some varieties of fern such as the Killarney fern here in Ireland were driven to the edge of extinction such was the enthusiasm of collectors. Once collected from the wild specimens could be sketched or and pressed in an album with careful notes given.
 
The Book of Choice Ferns just one of many published on the topic (above, bottom right)

Collecting of ferns was seen has a wholesome and healthy past time for both young ladies and gentlemen but it was not unheard of for a romance or two to be kindled in romantic woodland settings. The freedom of the countryside was positively invigorating for young ladies who sent much of their lives sitting in stuffy drawing rooms and parlours. One Victorian father commented that “fern collecting was much preferable for his daughters rather than them wasting their time reading novels and gossiping!”.

 
It was not unheard of for a romance to blossom alongside the woodland ferns.

Where fashion led Mitchell Henry and his family at Kylemore castle were never far behind. The Henry’s however were not limited to Wardian cases or fern albums, their extensive heated glass houses became exotic jungles filled with the most sought after and elusive examples including impressive giant tree ferns as shown below.

 
Giant Tree fern in a Kylemore glasshouse


In addition to ferns in the main glasshouses, dedicated ferneries were situated to on the north facing walls of the matching vineries. These were fitted with water basins and specially created rock facing to provide the perfect humid and shady conditions and rocky growing surfaces so loved by ferns. Although today we do not have the glasshouses, our gardeners have recently replanted the area with ferns to recreate a vision of how it would have looked in the 1800s.

 
The north-facing fernery which was once a steamy heated glasshouse
Visitors also adore our shady fern walk which boasts a great variety of native and non- native ferns which combined with the tumbling stream nearby gives a most beautiful and Victorian-esque effect. You can imagine the young Henry family being the envy of their fashionable friends visiting from London with this fern heaven on their doorstep!


 

Back now to our own Wardian case, on the right side we have 3 different ferns, two were collected, along with the moss from our woodland and are native, Hart's-tongue fern and Male fern. The Chilean hard fern is from our Fernery in the garden and was introduced from Chile in Victorian times. As would have been done in the 1800s we have added a little wade porcelain figure to our display. Ladies loved to create miniature woodland scenes with figurines and even miniature scenes that recreated tumble down castles or sylvian temples.

 

On the left side we have the Crimson bromeliad which prefers a dryer situation and is usually found more in Rock gardens, so we have had to be careful not to overwater it!.

As is so often the case with fashion, the ferns day has come again and Instagram and Pinterest are full of images of ferns, terrariums and wardian cases of all kinds.