Queensland’s fern fever
Pteridomania was the name coined by Charles Kingsley for the British fern fever of the nineteenth century. Unlike orchidelirium, fern fever was a pursuit embraced by all classes, open to anyone “possessing good taste”, as declared by Edward Newman in A history of British ferns. This fever spread to the colonies, with Australian ferns presenting exciting new opportunities for collection and decoration.
The creation of fern albums was popular among collectors, and the rare Queensland example below includes location information recorded by its creator. Charles Evans was so enamoured with ferns he would collect them as he was rounding up straying cattle while working in North Queensland in the 1880s.
Ferns, with their flat and intricate leaves, presented interesting possibilities for mass-produced nature printing. Lithograms of the ferns of Queensland, published in 1892, was intended as a low-cost identification guide for fern enthusiasts. In his “prefatory notice”, Frederick Manson Bailey articulates this compromise between quality and cost: one way to keep costs low was to avoid the use of artists and engravers, and turn to lithography using specimens as nature prints.
Queensland has no shortage of beautiful fern species, and the most exciting to discover must have been the epiphytic ferns like staghorns and bird’s nest ferns. Instead of requiring pots and greenhouses, epiphytic ferns could be hung as decorative pieces. An aesthetic quite peculiar to Queensland, the sight of staghorns adorning public and private infrastructure persisted well into the late twentieth century.
As with all collecting crazes, the fern fever saw plants stripped from their natural habitats to feed the appetites of collectors. The image below shows a collecting party picnicking after removing wild staghorns near Maryborough.
Eventually this appetite for beautiful hanging gardens in public spaces waned, possibility due to the cost of maintenance. While South Brisbane station no longer boasts a fernery, Kuranda scenic railway station is one of the few whose tropical gardens persist.
Queensland ferns are featured in both the Entwined: plants and people exhibition and Kindred Spirits: plants and people publication. Kindred Spirits: plants and people is available to purchase from the Library Book Shop. With text by Shannon Brett, featuring images from State Library’s collection and more, it explores the ancient and ongoing connection between First Nations people and plants in Queensland. This publication was developed in response to the Entwined: plants and people exhibition which is open now and runs until November 14, 2021.
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