An ancient plant. Ferns are one of the most ancient plants found across the globe and believe it or not played a vital part in the globalisation of the world as we know it! As a central ingredient in coal, which fuelled the industrial revolution, the humble fern had a key role to play in getting us to where we are today.
In the 1840s, Victorian England became engulfed in ‘fern-mania’, an obsession that lasted half a century. Ferns appealed to Victorian sensibilities on many levels, not least that their reproductive methods appeared to be subtle and modest, with none of the brash sexuality of flowers and their need for birds and bees. Handily, ferns could flourish in the shadows of new housing in industrial cities, yet they were marketed as plants especially suitable for those of superior intelligence and discernment.
Ferns are an abundant feature of cool temperate forests and very ancient indeed. They first appeared 360 million years ago, long before the flowering plants, and even before bacteria and fungi had evolved to break down dead wood. So, for 50 million years or so, ferns and other primitive plants never decayed but were instead eventually covered over and squashed, turning into the coal that has fuelled the industrial age.
Astoundingly, ferns reproduce by means of microscopic swimming sperm, which is why they need shade and moisture. Some species are enormous; the silver tree fern of New Zealand may grow to 10m, with an umbrella of gracefully arching fronds radiating from the centre – each one can be the length of a canoe.
They unfurl from pent-up, spirally wound fiddleheads that are represented by the koru – a common Maori design motif, symbolizing growth and renewal. The undersides of the leaves turn white or even silver as they mature; plucked and left shiny-side up at night along a forest track, they become bright moon-reflective way-markers.
how ferns travelled
Fern collecting became a national hobby; wholesome and healthy. Fern appreciation societies proliferated, and collecting parties were popular social outings, where men and women could mix. Meanwhile however, professionals rapaciously scoured the countryside for rare ferns and hawked them door-to-door, driving some species to extinction while the desire for novelty turned attention to ferns from the Empire.
By 1860, once wild and dignified silver tree ferns from New Zealand were being torn up and touted in England as ‘ideal garden ornaments’, anticipating the trade in endangered species that does so much damage today. Only buy plants and seeds from reputable garden centres!
Want to delve deeper into the world of trees and plants?
Check out author Jon Drori's beautifully illustrated works, Around the World in 80 Trees and Around the World in 80 Plants - intertwining botany with history, culture and folklore. Both are available from all booksellers or via Jon’s website. Jon has very kindly offered a 25% discount with the voucher code 80JONDRORI.
Listen to original music by My Panda Shall Fly, alongside spoken text by Jon Drori created in response to the Fern, Iconic Plant and commissioned especially for PoliNations. Narration by Jade Samuels. To listen to the music by itself. click the link further up the page.
Illustrations by Lucille Clerc.
All Iconic Plants
A journeying plant. Although a common sight in British orchards and gardens today, the apple actually originated in Kazakhstan! Like so many goods before it, the plant journeyed to the UK via the Silk Road. The apple’s prevalence is even more surprising when you consider its inability to self-pollinate; since the seed of an apple won’t replicate its parent, the only way to replicate an apple is to graft a new one.
A plant of identity and protest. Historically, ‘pansy’ has been used as a derogatory term for gay men - one of several horticulturally derived slurs. Over time, the name has been reclaimed as a celebration of diversity and sexuality: throughout the 20th century numerous freethinking movements have used the term, including the drag ball scene of 1920s - 1930s New York, in which performers were referred to as ‘pansy performers’ because of their colourful clothing.
A plant of pragmatism. Long seen as a symbol of sorrow due to its drooping branches, the willow also tells a story of resilience, healing and strength. One of the few trees that can be bent without breaking, willow trees are known for their association with crafts and weaving, but they also have a long history of healing. The medicinal properties of willow bark, which contain a chemical used in aspirin, have been used for centuries.
A plant of resistance and tenacity. The ultimate survivor, Amaranth was first used by Aztecs in rituals involving food created from the plant. Subsequently outlawed by the Spanish conquerors the plant became a symbol of resistance against the invaders. It survived their repression and continues to be grown across the world today.
A plant of wellbeing. Throughout history, lavender has been used to soothe, calm and alleviate stress. Highly fashionable in the Victorian era and into the 20th century, the scent can evoke strong memories among the older generations in particular. The plant itself, and the oil derived from it, has multiple uses across perfume, cooking and herbal medicine. Its healing qualities are known to have been used as far back as Ancient Egypt!
A plant of empire. While a quintessentially English drink nowadays, and well known for being grown in India, tea has its roots in the history of empire. Originally found and imported solely from China, the East India Company moved to prevent a Chinese monopoly on the product by smuggling the plant, and the secrets of its cultivation, out of China and into India. Soon, tea became established as a profitable export for landowners.
A plant of the economy. Originating in central Asia and Turkey, it was the introduction of the Tulip to Holland in the 17th century which subsequently caused the world’s first asset bubble. During this period of so-called ‘Tulip mania’, the plants became a luxury item: the price of bulbs soared until they peaked and subsequently came crashing down, leading to serious financial repercussions.
A plant of poetry. Throughout history the rose has featured in literature and mythology from across the world, and has come to represent many things: love, war, purity and friendship among others. In a happy reflection of cultures coming together, it’s only in hybridising with the Chinese rose, that the English Rose came to flower for as long as it does now.