Victorians had a lot of fun quirks, especially when it came to nature and collecting. For example, in 1829, “fern fever,” also called Pteridomania, gripped amateur botanists around Europe and the U.S.
What set off “fern mania”?
The craze for ferns (yes, the plants) came about in part as a result of an invention by a British surgeon. Nathaniel Bagshaw Warn invented the Wardian case. It was a mini greenhouse that could keep plants alive in England despite the dreary weather. Exotic specimens were being collected all over the world. Thanks to the case, they could now be brought back and put on display in greenhouses and in homes with grimmer weather.
According to Atlas Obscura (cited below): “His invention allowed botanist George Loddiges to build the world’s largest hothouse in East London, which included a fern nursery.”
What was Pteridomania?
Ferns were associated with fairies and other mythical creatures, so it wasn’t hard to get people interested in them. But Loddiges needed visitors to keep his hothouse operating. So he spread the (unsubstantiated) word that spending time around ferns could increase intelligence and virility, and improve mood. That was enough to get people interested in not only visiting his fern collection but to start mini collections of their own.
Amateur botany transcended classes, and everyone from aristocrats to miners started collecting ferns as a hobby. When the Victorians weren’t collecting ferns they were reading about them. Roughly 300 books on ferns were published during this time.
According to Atlas Obscura, things eventually got out of hand.
“Since the fern was not easy to cultivate, even with Wardian cases at hand, prices soon skyrocketed. After all, there were only 40 types of ferns in the English countryside, and collectors needed more. A non-British specimen could cost up to the Victorian equivalent of 1,000 pounds. Professional fern hunters wrote accounts of scouring the West Indies, Panama and Honduras for a never-seen-before fern. If you could not afford to sponsor a scientific expedition to South America or Asia, there was always the notorious underworld to turn to: crimewaves of fern-stealing plagued the countryside for decades.” — WTF fun facts
Source: “How the Victorian Fern-Hunting Craze Led To Adventure, Romance, and Crime” — Atlas Obscura