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Peter D. A. Boyd

The Victorian Fern Cult in South-West Britain

Peter D. A. Boyd

Web version of

BOYD, P.D.A. 1992(b). The Victorian Fern Cult in South-west Britain. In IDE, JERMY and PAUL 1992. Fern Horticulture: past, present and future perspectives. 33-56, 1992. Intercept, Andover (Proceedings of the British Pteridological Society Centenary Symposium held in 1991)

Abstract

South-west Britain has a special place in the history of the Victorian enthusiasm for species of British Ferns and their 'varieties'. Victorian fern books include more references to fern varieties discovered in the area from Monmouthshire to the Channel Islands than any other part of the British Isles. Devon was the most important of these south-western counties as a source of such varieties. Many of the people whose names are linked with the early varieties lived in Devon and adjacent areas and cultivated ferns while others made pilgrimages to the area and removed ferns to their gardens elsewhere. The coming of the railway to the region in the 1850s made previously remote areas far more accessible to the ordinary tourist and the specialist fern hunter. Northern Devon was particularly favoured and boasted three specialist fern nurseries: John Dadds (Ilfracombe), Lewis's (Ilfracombe) and Edmund Gill (Lynton) - the only ones in the West Country. The first British Pteridological Society started life as the "West of England Pteridological Society" and one of the most significant publications of the fern cult, Nature-printed Impressions of the Varieties of the British Species of Ferns, was initiated by it and produced within the region. The 50 year period between 1841 and 1891 saw the British Fern cult pass through four phases with changes of emphasis from (a) collecting British fern species, to (b) collecting new varieties of those species in the wild, to (c) raising new varieties from spores of sowings of those varieties already discovered, to (d) raising crosses between varieties by sowing mixtures of spores. New varieties were exhibited at local, regional and national horticultural shows. Most of the pioneers of the British 'Fern Cult' in south-west Britain had died by 1891. This encouraged the formation of a new Pteridological Society in the North of England which became the present British Pteridological Society.

Introduction

The present British Pteridological Society started life as the Northern Pteridological Society at Kendal, on the edge of the English Lake District, in 1891 (Dyce 1991). North West Britain was to become an important focus for British Pteridology for several years after 1891 but it was south-west Britain and particularly Devon that could be said to be the most active centre of the British fern cult earlier in the 19th century. Later, in 1911, North Devon was chosen by the British Pteridological Society for the first excursion held outside northern Britain (Druery, 1911).

This paper is an attempt to chronicle aspects of the history and development of the cult in south-west Britain from about 1840 until the beginning of the 20th century. However, 1891 was a milestone and many of the pioneers of the cult in the south-west had died by that year or within a few years after it.

 

The Victorian Fern Craze and the development of the fern cult in S.W. Britain

The term "Victorian Fern Craze" is used in this paper with reference to the broad social phenomenon in which fashion played an important part (Allen, 1969). The production of objects using ferns as the decorative motif (see Boyd, 1989 and in prep.) is one manifestation of that phenomenon.

The term "British Fern Cult" is used here to denote the cult associated with collecting and raising British fern species and their varieties. Some Victorians were also enthusiastic about the exotic species such as the Australian Tree Ferns (e.g. Dicksonia spp.), for which some south-west gardens (particularly in Cornwall) are so well known, but it is not the intention of the author to cover these here. The "British Fern Cult" was a particular phenomenon which outlasted fashion and to which some present-day members of the British Pteridological Society would consider themselves adherents. Members of the cult were men and women for whom ferns were more than a mere fad or fashion. They were botanists or 'plantsmen' with a genuine and passionate interest in them.

The British fern cult started with an interest in the species of British ferns. New discoveries and the localities in which the species were found were documented in periodicals, particularly The Phytologist which first appeared in 1841. The publication of localities sometimes led to plunder. Neither The Phytologist nor the early books on British Ferns make much mention of variation within the species until the 1850s but then varieties became the new thing to look for. The first major publication covering varieties in detail was Nature-printed British Ferns by Thomas Moore (1859), produced in folio and octavo editions. A large number of the varieties described had been found in south-west Britain and much of the information had been provided by pteridologists who lived in the south-west and corresponded with Moore. The next important contribution was Our Native Ferns or a History of the British Species and their Varieties by Edward Lowe (1867).

Fern books were also written that covered a particular area and included accounts of the species and varieties found there (e.g. Chanter, 1856; Edwards, 1862) but many books dealing with the general flora of an area tended to ignore varieties. A List of the Flowering Plants and Ferns growing Wild in the County of Devon (Ravenshaw, 1860, 1872) was an exception and did provide details of varieties.

The publication of such guides, and improved transport links (e.g. the railway reached Barnstaple, North Devon in 1854) encouraged fern tourists and professional collectors alike to visit the south-west and Devon in particular. Areas that were previously remote became accessible to visitors and encouraged the establishment of specialist fern nurseries at the developing seaside resorts of Ilfracombe and Lynton in North Devon. The people that made pilgrimages to Devon or other parts of the south-west did so to search out the species and varieties described in the fern books and hopefully find new ones, to press the fronds in albums, to collect or buy fern plants to grow in their gardens or homes, to use fronds in decorating 'fancy work', to study ferns as a serious scientific pursuit or, for some, to collect plants to sell as a living. People of widely differing backgrounds became involved.

It was Charles Kingsley, who did much of his writing in Bideford, North Devon, that coined the term 'Pteridomania':

"Your daughters, perhaps, have been seized with the prevailing 'Pteridomania', and are collecting and buying ferns, with Ward's cases wherein to keep them (for which you have to pay) ... 'Fancy-work' has all but vanished from your drawing-room since the 'Lady-ferns' and 'Venus's hair' appeared. " (Kingsley, 1855).

He undoubtedly had first-hand experience of Pteridomania as his sister, Charlotte Chanter, wife of the Revd John Mills Chanter, Rector of Ilfracombe, North Devon had succumbed to the 'disease' and a year later published her book Ferny Combes - a ramble after ferns in the glens and valleys of Devonshire (Chanter, 1856). It is interesting to note that Thomas Ravenshaw, mentioned above, was Chanter's curate from 1854 to 1856. The Rev. W.T. Kingsley, cousin to Charles Kingsley and Charlotte Chanter, placed a notice outside his Rectory in Kilvington, Nottinghamshire, warning "Trespassers beware! Polypodiums and Scolopendriums set in these grounds" - Pteridomania was evidently a family failing.

The mild oceanic climate and diversity of topography, geology and soils in south-west Britain have provided ideal conditions for many species of the British fern flora and Devon is particularly blessed by this combination of factors. However, it was not just the number of species but also the extraordinary ferny luxuriance of the area compared with many other parts of the British Isles that encouraged Victorian writers to produce equally luxuriant prose.

The Revd Bree, a visitor, wrote enthusiastically about the area around Lynton, North Devon in 1847 and said "these rocky glens might seem to be the very seat of ferns; and accordingly they grew there in the greatest profusion and luxuriance, - they enjoyed themselves"(Bree, 1847).

Francis George Heath, born at Totnes, Devon was an author of several popular books on Ferns and some of these must have played a significant part in developing the Devon tourist industry during Victorian times. One of his most popular books was The Fern Paradise in which he extolled the ferny virtues of the county:

" Thousands of the tourists who annually visit the western 'Garden of England' - for Devonshire well deserves that appellation - whilst deeply impressed with the general loveliness of the county, nevertheless find it difficult to explain what it is that lends the peculiar character of softness and grace to the scenery".

"Here is the secret. The whole county is richly and luxuriantly clothed with Ferns. The number and variety of the most exquisite forms of these beautiful plants to be found in Devonshire are equalled by those of no other county in the United Kingdom. Devonshire is emphatically the 'paradise' of the British Ferns. There they are in very truth at home".

"The soil and air are adapted to them, and they adapt themselves to the whole aspect of the place. They clothe its hillsides and its hill-tops; they grow in the moist depths of its valleys; they fringe the banks of its streams; they are to be found in the recesses of its woods; they hang from rocks and walls and trees, and crowd into the towns and villages, fastening themselves with sweet familiarity even to the houses." (Heath, 1878).

 

The Hunters of Fern Species and the Origins of Plant Protection Legislation

A growing popular interest in ferns led to certain species being placed under special pressure, even as early as the 1840s, because of the number of people rooting out those species to attempt their cultivation at home or to press and dry them in herbaria. The amateur botanists and gardeners were joined by members of a new profession, that of "Fern Collector". Such a person would tour the country in search of particular species. Rare species would attract a higher price than others so these were specially sought and, if a population was found of such a species, as many specimens as possible were collected to sell. This may have provided a useful service to some gardeners or botanists who could not travel themselves but it was bad news for some fern populations. The extent of depredations on species such as the Forked Spleenwort, Maidenhair Fern, Royal Fern and Filmy Ferns caused their severe diminution or even extinction in some areas.

The Forked Spleenwort Asplenium septentrionale had been reported as abundant in localities on the Devon/Somerset border in about 1840 (e.g. Ward, 1841). Newman subsequently wrote that " since the publication of these localities, Potter, a well-known collector of British ferns, visited the district, and brought home hundreds, or perhaps thousands of roots for sale: I saw more than a bushell of them in his possession" (Newman, 1854). This species is now an extremely rare plant in the South West.

However, the danger of overcollecting was recognised as a danger quite early as shown by the experiences of Nona Bellairs in seeking the native Maidenhair Fern on the coastal cliffs of North Devon:

"I made another attempt to reach Adiantum capillus-veneris at Ilfracombe, taking with me a lad who seemed ready to climb the side of a house if necessary; but all the available tresses of Maiden-hair had been shorn away, and I returned with only a tinful of sea creatures to reward me for my pains".

"It seems cruelty so entire to destroy the habitat of any fern: yet, if the present rage continue, I see no hope of any known species being allowed to remain in its old haunts. The poor Ferns, like the wolves in olden time, have a price set upon their heads, and they in like manner will soon altogether disappear. We must have 'Fern Laws', and preserve them like game." (Bellairs, 1865).

Filmy Ferns (Hymenophyllum spp.) were sought in the dramatic river gorges near Lynton referred to by the Rev. Bree (in a part of North Devon described by the Victorians as "the Switzerland of England"). One local fern supplier, Edmund Gill of Lynton, sold Hymenophyllum in large clumps at 2/6d. per square foot in the 1880s. Victorian fern albums invariably contain 'mats' of the Hymenophyllum species and much must have perished in people's gardens soon after collection. It is not surprising that it became increasingly difficult to find.

Dartmoor was another area of Devon that was plundered. By 1896 the effects of such depredations had become obvious:

"Few of us accustomed to wander on our moors and take an interest in its flora can have failed to notice the diminution, it may be said destruction, of some of our rarer ferns. Osmunda regalis has been utterly eradicated from near Cornwood where it once grew with fronds six feet high; Lastrea Foeniisecii [=Drypoteris aemula] has been reduced to a few plants at Shaugh; the two Hymenophylla, once so abundant in the valley of the Cad, and on the rocks near Meavy, can now scarcely be met with, and the little oak fern, always extremely rare, is entirely gone. Asplenium lanceolatum, Ophioglossum, and the mounwort, still linger on; the difficulty in finding them has conduced to their preservation, and it is to be hoped that those who are acquainted with their habitats will hesitate to divulge their localities to others than those who will carefully protect them. A few years since might be seen in the streets of Plymouth itinerant fern collectors who were exposing for sale large mats of Hymenophyllum, torn ruthlessly from their rocks, the scars of which remain in the Meavy and Cornwood valleys to the present day" (Francis Brent in Rowe's Perambulation of Dartmoor (1896), 3rd. ed., 352.)

The Royal Fern Osmunda regalis, was plundered not only because of its majestic beauty and desirability as a garden plant but also to satisfy the needs of a plant craze more limited to the rich, the growing of tropical orchids - the fibrous 'roots' of the Royal Fern were still used until recently as the favoured growth medium for orchids.

Davey (1909), writing in the early twentieth century about Osmunda regalis in Cornwall, stated that the "continued depredations on the part of local and itinerant fern-vendors render it undesirable to give a list of localities for this handsome species. In some of the districts with which I am acquainted such shameful plundering has gone on that I now hesitate to speak or write about localities where the royal fern grows. A collector once boasted to me that he had recently despatched a truck-load of roots, weighing over five tons, from one of our railway stations."

However, gypsies and agents of unscrupulous fern vendors outside the area were indiscriminate as regards the species collected and they raided the South West to clear whole woodlands and hillsides of ferns. These ferns were packed in hampers and shipped, by railway, to the polluted cities of Britain for sale. Sometimes, if the thieves were caught, they were arrested and punished if a suitable charge could be brought against them. The Gardeners Chronicle of 1st February 1896 reported:

"Fern Stealers - William Mobey and Charles Williams of Bexley, Kent, were charged at Totnes with damaging Devonshire hedges. The evidence went to show that prisoners were engaged with a horse and cart in the wholesale removal of Ferns, about 5cwt. of roots being found in an outhouse. Previous convictions were recorded, and the Bench inflicted fines - Mobey, 5; Williams, 2 10s; together with the amount of damage. The money not being forthcoming, Mobey was sentenced to six weeks' hard labour, and Williams to one month."

It may be noted that they were charged with damaging the hedges (Devonshire banks), as no bye-law existed to cover the removal of the ferns. A private landowner could bring various actions such as trespass or theft but roadsides and common ground were relatively unprotected.

William Hiern, a renowned botanist who lived in Barnstaple, North Devon, was particularly concerned about the increasingly widespread plunder and notes in his manuscripts and in the margins of some of his books document the increasing pressure on particular fern species. He was a County Councillor and was active in encouraging Devon County Council to instigate what may have been the earliest wild plant protection legislation in Britain. On 20th March 1902, the Council resolved:

"that it is desirable that there should be added to the existing bye-laws a bye-law prohibiting the uprooting of ferns and flowering plants or shrubs on land within the County Council area to which the public have access; and that the subject be referred to the General Purposes Committee for consideration and report".

The committee subsequently communicated the wishes of the Council to the Home Secretary, whose approval to the proposed bye-law would be necessary. However, the reply from the Home Office was cautious:

"If it is confined to cases where serious damage and disfigurement is caused in public highways, etc., there may not be much difficulty from the legal point of view in framing the bye-law, but the Secretary of State would not be willing to allow a bye-law which would be likely to injure unsuspecting poor people residing in the district, or to lead to the punishment of young children. Possibly however the bye-law could be restricted in its operations so as not to involve any danger of this, e.g. by confining it to particular places to be indicated by notices. If however it is proposed that the bye-law should only apply to rare ferns or plants, the difficulties in framing it are likely to be greater. In any event a bye-law which would prevent any person from taking one or two common ferns or plants from the roadside for his own use, would in the opinion of the Secretary of State be inadmissible." (quoted in Hiern, 1906).

The General Purposes Committee decided not to recommend the Council to take any further action in the matter." (Hiern, 1906). However, it seems that Hiern continued to push for a bye-law to protect ferns and other plants and a bye-law was subsequently adopted on 15th December 1904 "for prohibiting the uprooting or destroying of Ferns or other Wild Plants in certain parishes mentioned therein".

This still left large parts of Devon unprotected and was repealed on 15th March 1906 to be replaced by a stronger Bye-Law applying to the Administrative County of Devon with the exception of any Municipal Boroughs therein:

"No person shall uproot or destroy any ferns or other wild plants growing in any road, lane, roadside waste, wayside bank or hedge, common, or other public place, in such a manner or in such quantities as to damage or disfigure such road, lane, or other place, provided that this Bye-Law shall not apply to persons collecting specimens in small quantities for private or scientific use. Any person offending against this Bye-Law shall be liable to a penalty not exceeding Five Pounds." (Devon County Council, 1906).

 

The Hunters of Fern Varieties

Parts of South West Britain have not recovered from the loss of fern species that were overcollected during the nineteenth century. However, some hunters probably did little harm to local fern populations or the habitats. They were the discriminating hunters of varieties. Captain Jones of Clifton, Bristol recorded the point of view of the collectors of fern varieties in the text which accompanied Nature-printed Impressions of the Varieties of the British Species of Ferns (Jones, 1876-1880):

"It may not be out of place here to add a word in justice to the true hunter of varieties, - who is too often confounded in the minds of the ignorant with those ruthless destroyers of species, who year by year throw back the fern-line farther from our cities. The true hunter of varieties is on the contrary, the preserver of rare forms, and but for him, many a beautiful thing which is now a delight to hundreds, would have perished entirely, - for, as is well known, nature thinks it enough to look after the welfare of things generally, and leaves the individual pretty much to take care of itself, and as a rule these finer organisms, if left to themselves, have scarce a chance of permanent survival in the hard struggle that is ever going on; it is only the lucky accident that made them catch the eye of one of these benevolent hunters, that has in many a case, saved them from being hopelessly strangled by ruder and stronger growths, or from the miseries of a slow death by starvation."(Jones, 1880a).

Although only about 80 species of ferns and their natural hybrids are recognised as occurring naturally in the British Isles, hundreds of distinct 'varieties' were identified in South West Britain during the 19th century, their descriptions published (e.g. Moore, 1859; Lowe, 1867, 1890) and the plants propagated. Some of the varieties found in the region during the nineteenth century are still popular and widely available plants. The best example is probably Dryopteris affinis (Cristatum Section) cv. The King which was found in Cornwall. It was described as "perhaps the grandest and most useful of British Ferns, and it is scarcely to the credit of Pteridologists that its history should still remain obscure; - all that is known is that it was found in the parish of St. Austell, in the grounds of Caercleugh and that the plant was at Kew in 1850" (Jones, 1880b). As it reproduces almost 100% true from spores it became widely available last century and is still one of the few fern varieties that is commercially grown to supply non-specialist garden centres (and even reliably labelled).

However, some of the best fern varieties are either barren or do not reproduce true from spores or bulbils and divisions of the parent plant are the only means of obtaining the true variety. Athyrium filix-femina (Plumosum Section) cv. Clarissima Jones is such a variety. Its discovery is well recorded. It was found near Ilfracombe, North Devon in 1868 by Robert Moule but left unplanted on the hot sunny day of its discovery until rescued by Captain Jones of Clifton, Bristol who was visiting him (Druery, 1910b).

Some members of the 'Fern Cult' clearly enjoyed searching for new varieties in the wild so much or were so satisfied with what they could obtain from fern nurseries that they could not be bothered to raise ferns from spores. However, some others realised that the spores of some good variety in their collection or the collection of someone else could yield further variations and possible 'improvements'. A few members of the cult went a stage further and sowed mixtures of spores from different varieties. These resulted in an amazing range of forms with mixtures of characteristics (Lowe, 1895). One sowing could yield more and 'better' varieties than one person could ever hope to find in a lifetime of searching in the wild.

Although new varieties were still to be found in the wild, which could contribute fresh genes to the pool, the time of the fern hunter was past its zenith and the centre of activities of the British Fern Cult had moved by the late 1880s from an area centred on the natural richness of Devon and its fern nurseries to an area centred more on the propagating frames and gardens of Shirenewton (Edward Lowe), Clifton (Colonel Jones) and Brislington (Edwin Fox).

Edward Lowe wrote a useful summary of the 'accepted' native fern varieties discovered or raised up to about 1890 in British Ferns and Where Found (Lowe, 1890) but these were further whittled down for British Ferns and their Varieties (Druery, 1910a). An analysis of the descriptions in Lowe (1890) has yielded quantitative data with regard to the areas of the South West which were most productive of natural (wild find) varieties, and is summarised in Table 1. This shows that Devon yielded more than three times as many varieties as its nearest 'rival', Somerset, and more than all other counties in the South West put together.

Figure 1. Map showing the geographical area of South-West Britain covered by this paper. Please note that the county boudaries shown are those prior to Local Government re-organisation in 1974. [web version not available at present]

Table 1. An analysis of the numbers of fern varieties found in different parts of South West Britain before 1890 (based on information extracted from Lowe, 1890a).

Species
Varieties
Devon Somerset Dorset Monmouthshire Cornwall Channel Islands
Gloucestershire
 
No.
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
Adiantum capillus-veneris
6
50
-
-
-
50
-
-
Asplenium adiantum-nigrum
6
100
-
-
-
-
-
-
Asplenium ceterach
2
100
-
-
-
-
-
-
Asplenium marinum
12
33
-
8
-
33
26
-
Asplenium obovatum
7
43
-
-
-
14
43
-
Asplenium ruta-muraria
4
75
25
-
-
-
-
-
Asplenium scolopendrium
102
50
21
7
7
4
10
2
Asplenium trichomanes
13
54
15
-
15
8
-
8
Athyrium filix-femina
18
39
28
5
-
22
5
-
Blechnum spicant
9
89
11
-
-
-
-
-
Cystopteris fragilis
4
50
-
-
50
-
-
-
Dryopteris aemula
1
100
-
-
-
-
-
-
Dryopteris affinis
8
83
-
-
-
17
-
-
Dryopteris dilatata
4
75
25
-
-
-
-
-
Dryopteris filix-mas
15
67
7
20
-
7
-
-
Dryopteris sp.
1
100
-
-
-
-
-
-
Hymenophyllum wilsoni
1
100
-
-
-
-
-
-
Oreopteris limbosperma
4
75
-
-
25
-
-
-
Polypodium vulgare
19
37
11
5
37
5
5
-
Polystichum aculeatum
13
46
8
15
23
-
-
8
Polystichum setiferum
141
57
22
17
1
1
1
1
Pteridium aquilinum
5
60
20
-
20
-
-
-
Total no. of 'varieties'
395
212
67
39
33
21
19
5
Total as percentage
100
54
17
10
8
5
5
1

 

The West of England Pteridological Society and Jones's Nature Prints

Some of the key members of the British Fern Cult were apparently responsible for the foundation of The West of England Pteridological Society in the early 1870s. This was referred to by William Phillips of County Down, Ireland in his address to the present British Pteridological Society in 1905. He recounted how "early in the seventies" he had been invited by Captain Jones to join "the West of England Pteridological Society, then being started". He, "unfortunately" did not do so, as he lived so far away that he could not have attended their meetings. "This Society published a series of nature prints, and on a visit to London in 1876 ", Mr Phillips met Capt. Jones and, with him, visited the home of Dr Allchin, and "there saw the series, beautifully coloured by Miss Allchin, the sight of which made me regret that I had not been associated with the work" (Phillips, 1905).

At some stage prior to 1875 the 'West of England Pteridological Society' must have changed its name to the 'British Pteridological Society' because they published The Occasional Paper of the British Pteridological Society No. 1 in April 1875 (BPS, 1875). It was printed at Bromley in Kent, close to the home of G. B. Wollaston who had been elected a Vice-President of the Society in July 1874.

Its Officers for the year 1875 consisted, in the main, of well-known pteridologists of the time, several of whom were based in or spent much time in the South West.

They were listed as follows:-

President: (Vacant)

Vice-Presidents: W.H. Allchin, M.B. Thomas Moore, Esq., F.L.S. G. B. Wollaston, Esq.

Treasurer: Captain A.M. Jones

Secretary: Rev. H.A. Walker

Committee: R. Bloxham, Esq., S. Cowper, Esq., Edwin F. Fox Esq., M.D. P. Neill Fraser, Esq., D.J. French, Esq., Captain A.M. Jones, E.J. Lowe, Esq., F.R.S., Etc., J.E. Mapplebeck, Esq., F.L.S., Etc., W. Harvey Moberly, Esq., J. Moly, Esq., R.A. Thompson, Esq., J.S. Wills, Esq.

Several meetings had already been held at the homes of Dr Allchin, Mr Wollaston and principally of Mr. Thompson. Not only were the "General Meetings been so often held at his house, but he has continually invited the Executive Committee and Sub-Committee of Diagnosis to meet there likewise." These comments seem to indicate that the Society was quite an active one. However, "it was much discussed whether or no it would be advisable to have a public meeting, in order that the Society might make itself and its objects better known, but it was considered better to wait for a time, till it had acquired more strength, and was also in a more advanced working order." This is doubtless why it has been so difficult for the author and others to find anything more about the Society than is contained in this one publication.

The Officers wanted the Occasional Paper to be

"a record of the past and present of British ferns: a record of new species, should such be ascertained; of new varieties, either found wild, or raised from seed in private collections; of all that has to do with the scientific study of the different parts of a fern, from its earliest germ to its final resting place in the herbarium of the enthusiast; a record of the nomenclature of ferns, and with that an analogical system of naming, which it is hoped will prove to be possible, and tend to make the names more easy for memory as well as intelligible to less acquainted collectors; a notice of their diseases and the different insects by which they are attacked; a medium of communication and exchange between finders and growers; and in general, a means whereby all may give their opinion, and say their say upon ferns and all that in any way has to do with them".

The meetings reported upon in the paper indicate that the Society, under its new title at least, was probably established in 1874 as an Address on the Objects of the Society was read at the meeting held on July 13th 1874 at the home of Mr Wollaston. Mr Wollaston completed his address by stating that:- "I hope we shall some of us meet, during the recess, in our rambles, or at the friendly mansion of some Country Member, where we shall be able to discuss the subject nearest to our heart amongst the lovely scenes of nature".

Subsequently, in September 1874, the Society spent three days in the Bristol area studying the collections of Captain Jones and Edwin Fox and heard a paper on fern classification presented by Dr Allchin. The only other meeting reported upon in the paper was "the Monthly Meeting in November" [1874] at which Mr Wollaston presented a paper on the classification of Lastrea (Dryopteris filix-mas etc). Again it took place at his home at Chiselhurst, Kent.

It was stated on the back of the Occasional Paper that "impressions of three forms of Polystichum Angulare [P. setiferum], found by Mr Wills, are enclosed; it is intended to continue the series of new and striking varieties, should the funds of the Society admit of the scheme"(BPS, April 1875).

It is not known, at present, if any more Occasional Papers or impressions were produced during the rest of 1875 or early 1876 but The British Pteridological Society ceased to exist after a meeting of the Society in January 1876. It is not clear whether it was decided to discontinue the operation of the Society at that meeting or shortly afterwards. However, it was referred to by Captain Jones as the "late British Pteridological Society" in a notice, dated 15th May 1876, that accompanied a set of nature-printed impressions issued to members of the Society. It was stated in the notice that "the Members of the late Society are entitled without further payment to the impressions which accompany this [notice]" (Jones, 1876a). Captain Jones was careful to point out that "The Committee of the late Society authorised merely the publication of a certain number of impressions". He added letterpress "in the belief that some information respecting the varieties would be acceptable. It is desired that it should be understood that the Committee are in no degree responsible for any portion of it"(Jones, 1876b).

As mentioned above, William Phillips had seen the nature prints at Dr Allchin's house in 1876. They had been coloured by Miss Allchin and it may be noted that Jones included references to the colour of some varieties in the letterpress "as an aid to those who may wish to colour the impressions" (Jones, 1876b).

The "Nature-printed Impressions" were made by Thomas Smith who had been gardener to the Rev. Padley in the West of England. He had been sent to London by the Rev. Padley to be trained to produce nature prints because Padley planned to produce a monograph on varieties of Polystichum setiferum (Jones, 1880a and 1888). Thomas Smith not only learnt how nature prints were made but improved upon the process. Capt. Jones became aware of his talent and, later, recalling the events of 1875/76, wrote that he had been "instrumental in employing him, in the interest of The British Pteridological Society, to produce some nature prints of the varieties of British ferns" (Jones, 1888). This statement reinforces the evidence already given that the first nature prints were definitely produced for the British Pteridological Society.

However, at the same time that Jones distributed the last set of impressions which the Committee of the late Society apparently considered were "owed " to the Members, he "proposed that the series of nature-printed impressions should be continued", at cost price, on a subscription basis (12 shillings in the first year). He intended one dozen or one and a half dozen sheets of impressions to be issued quarterly at a cost not exceeding 3 shillings per dozen (Jones, 1876a).

These further impressions were therefore to be produced at the personal instigation of Capt. Jones. He later recalled how he employed Thomas Smith himself "in the issue of a more comprehensive series of nature prints in illustration chiefly of the more marked characters which run more or less completely through the different species of British ferns" (Jones, 1888).

Captain Jones was keen to continue the series of nature-printed impressions because "it has been often a matter of regret that, to the generality of those who are interested in British Ferns, many of the most remarkable and beautiful varieties are practically unknown, from the fact of their being in the hands of a few, in some instances of a single cultivator" (Jones, 1876a). He continues:

"To many also the beautiful varieties of some of the most interesting species are, from the accident of their position, almost entirely unknown. How many, for instance, in the north have but a faint idea of the remarkable forms of Polystichum in the collections of Mr. Moly, Mr. Wollaston, the Rev. C. Padley and Mr Wills; while, on the other hand, how many southern cultivators know little of the treasures of Lastrea montana, and other species, which have rewarded the untiring energy of Mr. Barnes and other northern hunters. Few, perhaps, know the extent to which Mr Lowe has developed the capabilities of the Scolopendrium, or Mr. Mapplebeck those of the Athyrium, while in Ireland and Scotland many remarkable forms have doubtless been discovered of which as yet little is known".

"It has therefore been thought that a comprehensive series of impressions, which, at a comparatively small cost, should convey a tolerably faithful representation of the most beautiful, distinct, or rare varieties of, at least, the principal species, would supply a want that has been generally felt, and which could scarcely be met in any other way".

"It is believed that such a series, far from interfering with more elaborate works on the same subject (such as those of Mr Moore, Mr Lowe and others), would rather be supplementary to, and illustrative of, them".

"If coloured by hand the impressions would present such a life-like representation of the actual varieties as would leave little to be desired".

"It is intended that forms of beauty should largely preponderate in the selection, at the same time forms that are especially rare, or remarkable in other respects, would not be overlooked".

"It has been thought that the interest of the impressions would be enhanced by the addition of notes on the history of the varieties, and on other matters connected with them".

"It is wished that this should be the work of the many, rather than of one or two. Any practical suggestions made in the interest of the scheme will be welcomed, and remarks on peculiarities of growth or on points of interest connected with the discovery of particular varieties, Etc., Etc., will be very acceptable, so that the collection may not be a mere pile of dead leaves; and, to give such remarks their full value, it is intended that, as far as possible, they should be inserted in the words and under the name of those who supply the information".

The first series of these nature prints was issued to subscribers in March 1877 as the Second Series of Impressions. Copies of the full 'set' of what are generally known as "Jones's Nature Prints" therefore start with the impressions produced for the British Pteridological Society in May 1876 (i.e. they are treated as the First Series). The third series was issued in December 1877, the fourth in December 1878, the fifth in December 1879 and the sixth in October 1880. The title of the project became Nature-printed Impressions of the Varieties of the British Species of Ferns. Between 300 and 400 varieties were figured. There were 48 subscribers to the series. The impressions were issued as loose sheets so that "every subscriber would have the opportunity of classifying the varieties in the only right way, - viz., his own." (Jones, 1876a).

Each issue was accompanied by a notice or memorandum introducing the issue, giving details of future subscriptions required, comments on classification, credits etc. (Jones, 1876a, 1877a, 1877c, 1878a, 1879a and 1880a). These were not always kept by subscribers and some or all are missing from some unbound or bound sets of the nature prints. The author has found these particularly useful. Each issue was also accompanied by one or more letterpress sheets giving details about the varieties represented by the impressions, their discoverers and their cultivators (Jones, 1876b, 1877b, 1877d, 1878b, 1879b, 1880b). These were designed to be cut-up and pasted in whatever arrangement the subscriber desired. However, some extra notes were included on some sheets that were not relevant to the varieties and these were therefore discarded by many subscribers when the sheets were cut-up. These notes, absent in many copies of the Nature Prints, have also been extremely useful in compiling this paper.

The number of sheets, varieties and impressions varies between different sets of the prints. Some sets have extra sheets to represent varieties not numbered or described in detail in the letterpress. An analysis by the author of an unbound set showed that 332 varieties were represented on 383 sheets with 546 individual frond impressions. The First Series represented 42 varieties, the Second had 33 varieties, the Third had 31 varieties, the Fourth had 66 varieties, the Fifth had 61 varieties and the Sixth had 100 varieties. Athyrium filix-femina cv. Clarissima Jones was represented in two of the series.

The Nature Prints are a wonderful source of information about those British fern varieties which were considered most significant at that time. However, there were limitations to the process and the three-dimensional aspect which is so important in some varieties was lost by pressing (e.g. 'Revolvens' types and many varieties of Asplenium scolopendrium). In spite of these limitations, it is to be greatly regretted that the Prints are not more widely available as some sort of 'reprint', although collages of negative silhouettes based on the Prints were used in Choice British Ferns (Druery, 1888) and 96 of the 300 or so of the originals were reproduced as photographic reductions in British Ferns and their Varieties (Druery, 1910a).

Modern methods of reproduction would convey a better impression of the quality of the originals, although the quality regards density (inking) varies considerably between otherwise identical prints from one set of the originals to another.

It is not certain how the prints were produced but the author has made some observations while examining different copies of the nature prints from which some deductions may be made. No two prints of the same frond are exactly alike. A scale on the stipe may have moved, a pinnule be missing or the orientation of the frond on the paper change slightly from print to print. Indeed, the same frond was sometimes used on its own or with others on one sheet and the spacing/orientation of individual fronds varies. In several cases the prints on different sheets are mirror images of each other. This was first noticed in comparing the photographic representations of the nature prints in Druery (1910) with the real thing. At first, the author thought that the photographic negative had been reversed by mistake when the book was produced. However, when the same thing was observed between different nature prints it became clear that the frond had been turned over and prints obtained from both sides. This demonstrated clearly how real fronds were used to produce the prints. They were first pressed and dried in a similar way to a normal herbarium specimen. Then they were inked with a roller, sponge or brush and the frond placed carefully onto the sheet. Probably several trial impressions would be required using a press until the excess ink had been removed and a suitably clean and sharp impression obtained after which several prints might be obtained before re-inking the frond became necessary. After a while, one side of the frond may have become clogged and difficult to obtain a clear print from so the frond was turned over and that side inked instead. The fact that real fronds were used is re-enforced by the fact that the back of the prints show a ridge where the stipe has been pressed into the paper. This may be compared with Moore's Nature Printed Ferns where a replica of the frond was used as the printing plate. This gives the effect of a furrow on the back of the print representing the stipe because the paper was pressed into a metal negative of the frond.

There are those who have wondered at Captain Jones's "taste" concerning the illustration of some varieties but it is clear that it was his intention to show the range of variation that occurred in British Ferns. This is why some varieties represented would not now be considered 'good ones'. He illustrated some depauperate and irregular varieties on purpose. However, in enumerating "the defects of the work" he allowed that "the selection of forms for illustration has not always been good, and the specimens themselves have sometimes been imperfect ... If it had to be done again, it might perhaps be done better, and no doubt there are others who feel they could have done it better" (Jones, 1880a). There must have been few who found much to criticise regarding the value of the project and Captain Jones was anxious to give credit to those who made the production of the Prints possible, in the Memorandum accompanying the final, sixth, series of nature-printed impressions:

"With regard to the Nature-prints it is but right that whatever credit is attached to them should in the first place be accorded to Mr Padley for having originally selected Mr Thos. Smith (who has since been employed on this work) and caused him to be instructed in the best system of Nature-printing then in vogue".

"It had long been Mr Padley's intention to have produced a monograph of the varieties of Polystichum angulare [Polystichum setiferum], and to all who are aware of his exceptional mastery of this subject, and are interested in it, it will ever be a matter of lively regret that he was unable to bring this design to a successful conclusion".

"It was only when it was ascertained that Mr Padley had finally abandoned his intention, and when it seemed likely that the result of much expense and careful preparation would be altogether lost, that Mr Smith was employed on the present work".

"In Mr Smith's case, a natural taste for, and no slight knowledge of British Ferns, (acquired under Mr Padley) happened very happily to be combined with technical skill, and the power of adapting for the work which he took in hand, processes never before employed in that way; to his originality in this respect, much of the excellence of Mr Smith's work is due; it is owing to the readiness with which (when through pressure of business, he was unable to give the same attention to the work as formerly) he frankly communicated the details of his system of nature printing, that the present undertaking has thus been completed, and the subscribers have received more than the stipulated number of plates".

"It is sincerely desired to thank all who have kindly assisted in any way; and, as regards the history of the varieties, it is felt that an acknowledgement is especially due to Mr Wollaston who has throughout most freely and kindly contributed both from the stores of information accumulated from others, and from his own experience; to Mr Barnes also special thanks are due for his very practical assistance in the same way, also to Mr Moore, Mr Padley, Dr Allchin, and others".

"With reference to the fronds used to illustrate the varieties, it is felt that, where the assistance given has been so general, it may seem invidious to particularise any; but in some cases the liberality that has been shown and the trouble that has been taken have been so exceptional, that it is felt it would not do to rest satisfied with a general expression of thanks, and that a special acknowledgement is due to Mr. Barnes, Mrs Hodgson, Mr Moly, Mr Wills, Mr Phillips, Mr Lowe, Mr Mapplebeck, and Mr Clapham, who have over and over again surrendered most willingly their very best fronds for the general good; - and scarcely less are thanks due to Mr Barnard Hankey, Mr Gray, Mr Forster, Mr Wollaston, Mrs Grant, Mr E.F. Fox, Dr Allchin, Mr Thompson, Mr Fraser, Mr Patey, Mr Carbonell, Mr Stansfield, and Mr Sim".

"Nor can the friendly counsel of Mr Fox with reference to the notes, the responsibility of which he gallantly shared, be passed over without notice".

"It should be generally known that the best thanks of the subscribers are due to Mr and Miss Carbonell, for having with very great care and accuracy reprinted the names of the varieties in all the six series, and for having most liberally supplied a complete set for each of the subscribers - these sets will accompany the present issue of Nature-prints, and will form a valuable addition to the work" (Jones, 1880a).

Although the British Pteridological Society had ceased to exist in 1876, it seems that many if not most of its former members and additional subscribers, at a distance from the South West and South East (e.g. Mr Phillips) were drawn together by this enterprise.

 

The North Devon Fern Nurseries and Dealers

Devon provided such ideal conditions for the cultivation of ferns and was so productive of species and varieties that it is not surprising that fern nurseries were established in the county to satisfy the needs of fern enthusiasts who visited the area or to provide a mail-order service for pteridologists or general gardeners who could not visit. However, it is a little surprising that three professional Fern Nurseries operated in North Devon during a period from the 1850s until about 1890 and two of them at least carried on in a less specialist form into the 1900s. It is even more surprising that these were apparently the only Fern Nurseries in the West Country. A fourth dealer called Seward traded in ferns from Barnstaple, North Devon in the 1880s but there is no evidence that he ran a nursery. However, the presence of four fern nurseries or dealers in the area indicates the special significance that North Devon had to the fern cult.

Edmund Gill established a fern nursery at Lynton in 1858. He was formerly a boot-maker. A copy of Edmund Gill's catalogue of Ferns published sometime between 1881 and 1888 shows that he could supply 1000 species of British and exotic ferns, lycopodiums etc. These were "collected and cultivated for sale". His catalogue included 80 varieties of Athyrium filix-femina, lady fern, and 64 varieties of Asplenium scolopendrium, the hart's tongue. While the varieties would have been propagated it is likely that most of the native species (e.g. Hymenophyllum spp.) were supplied from the wild.

Although the site of his glazed Fernery still exists the roof was removed many years ago. No unusual species or varieties have survived on the site and the immediate area of the fernery is now far more built-up than it would have been last century. However, a framed pencil drawing (thought to be circa 1880) of the inside of the Edmund Gill Fernery, showing some features still visible on the site, has survived. Edmund Gill died in 1888 and the business was subsequently run by Thomas Murley who married one of Gill's daughters in the same year. Thomas Murley apparently continued dealing in ferns as well as other plants until his death in 1907.

Two fern nurseries were based in Ilfracombe. Probably the most important of these was that of John Dadds. John Dadds is credited with finding many new varieties but none of his documents or catalogues are known to have survived. He started collecting ferns in about 1852 when he was still an agricultural labourer. He probably started his fern nursery in the late 1860s. and he described himself in subsequent advertisements for his business, Dadds's North Devon Fernery and Rosary, as "the only experienced collector of ferns in Ilfracombe". He is supposed to have disapproved of raising ferns from spores as it "spoiled the market for hunters" (Stansfield, 1909) but he did produce several new varieties from spores some of which were illustrated in Jones's Nature Prints. Although John Dadds lived until 1906 the wording of advertisements from about 1890 suggest that the nursery had become more involved in half-hardy and tender plants. Whether this was because of 'market forces' (a decline in the public's interest in British Ferns) or bedding and pot-plants were easier to cope with as he became older (late sixties/early seventies) in not certain.

John Dadds's Fernery was at Langleigh, Ilfracombe. His cottage was semi-detached with his brother living next-door. One half of the cottage was enlarged by new owners in the 1920s/1930s but the other half, unoccupied since the 1920s, is in ruins with his collapsed and overgrown greenhouses. A crested corymbose Athyrium filix -femina treasured by the occupants of the other half of the semi-detached cottage since the 1920s is the only fern of interest surviving on the site. However, the author has found a number of interesting varieties of Asplenium scolopendrium, Athyrium filix-femina and Polystichum setiferum on nearby properties surviving as plants originally supplied by John Dadds or self-sown.

The other fern nursery in Ilfracombe was that of John Lewis. It was started on the outskirts of Ilfracombe at Slade (probably in about 1870) by John Lewis but he had retired by 1881 and the nursery was run by his son-in-law, Thomas Snell. The nursery was on a site now occupied by a house, apparently built in the 1890s, called 'The Fernery'. By 1910 the nursery was owned by Sydney Croft but it is not clear what interest in ferns he possessed, if any. Some crested Polystichum setiferum, possibly self-sown, still grow in the vicinity. However, it seems that Lewis's nursery may have moved to Chambercombe Road, Ilfracombe in the 1890s where the rusting and rotting remains of the Lewis's Fernery sign may still be seen. The nursery apparently continued to operate, selling a variety of vegetables, fruit and plants including ferns, until at least the 1920s. The relationships between the two sites and different proprietors remains to be clarified.

 

Competition in the Fern Cult and the End of an Era

A more or less friendly rivalry existed between members of the 'Fern Cult' (amateur and professional). British Ferns were exhibited at Horticultural Shows in the South West from at least the late 1860s to the 1880s. There seems to have been a proliferation of local horticultural societies in the early 1870s. Some of these provided several different classes for British Ferns and Exotic Ferns and also, in some cases, Exotic Selaginellas and Lycopodiums. It is a time-consuming task looking through old newspapers and the author has, so far, only been able to consult some North Devon and Somerset newspapers of the 19th century. However, Horticultural Shows in Barnstaple, Ilfracombe and Lynton seem to have attracted fern exhibitors from some distance. The results of these preliminary investigations indicate that another tier of followers of the fern cult remains to be revealed. However, a particularly important exhibition of British Fern varieties was put on at the British Association Floral Fete which was held at Bath, Somerset in 1888. The Gardeners' Chronicle reported on the show:

"The most conspicuous feature was that of British Ferns. The unique varieties of Colonel Jones, of Clifton, and of Mr. E. J. Lowe, F.R.S., of Shirenewton Hall, near Chepstow, made a grand display, numbering some hundreds of well-grown plants. All the First and Second Prizes were taken by these two gentlemen, who between them also secured thirty First-Class Certificates for very distinct new varieties. New Ferns also came from twelve other well-known growers. Such a collection has never before been brought together".

Nine of the exhibitors who won First Class Certificates for new varieties came from the south-west and another five from outside the area. Those from the south-west were: Mrs Abbot from near Bristol, Mr Carbonnel from Monmouthshire, Mr Fox, from near Bristol, Mr Gill from North Devon, Mrs Grant from Devon, Colonel Jones of Clifton, Mr Lowe of Monmouthshire, Mr Moly of Dorset and Mr Moule of North Devon. Those from outside the south-west were Mr Barnes from Westmoreland, Mr Druery from Essex, Mr Fitt from Hertfordshire, Mr Garnett from Windermere, and Messrs. F.W. and H. Stansfield of Lancashire. Competitors from the south-west also frequently won the prizes at shows organised by the Royal Horticultural Society in London and elsewhere. However, within three years of the Bath exhibition most of the south-west competitors had died.

Colonel Jones and Mr Carbonnel died the year before the National Fern Conference was held by the R.H.S. in London in July 1890. An exhibition of ferns, in which only one of the six classes was for British Ferns, accompanied the conference. There were three exhibitors in the Class for British Ferns: Lowe, Druery and Messrs. Birkenhead, of Sale, near Manchester. Lowe put on a display of some 200 specimens for which he won the Silver Challenge Cup and Certificates of Merit for several of his varieties. Druery's display of about 100 specimens, for which he received a Silver Gilt Flora Medal, included several varieties of Blechnum spicant that had been collected on Exmoor and Dartmoor, for which he received several Certificates of Merit. (An account of the exhibition is to be found in The Garden (Anon ,1890) and in Extracts from the Proceedings (Anon, 1890). Lowe presented a paper to the conference entitled Hybrid Ferns and Crossed Varieties (Lowe, 1890b).

By the time that a special R.H.S. Exhibition of British Ferns was held in London in August 1892 more of the pioneers had died. The Schedule for the latter described "Special Medal Prizes offered by British Fern Growers to Amateurs of the United Kingdom for specimens of the best varieties of British species, with the object of creating a greater interest in our native Ferns".

There were sixteen classes for collections and other prizes for best individual specimens. The prizes for the first four of the classes were given in memory of South West Pteridologists and the fifth also came from the South West. These five were as follows:

Class A - Colonel A.M. Jones's Memorial Prize for 10 plumose varieties (no restriction of species). Given by his daughters and Captain Stafford Jones. Silver Gilt Flora Medal. [Colonel Jones of Clifton, Bristol had died in 1889]

Class B - Mr Edwin Fydell Fox's Memorial Prize for 10 cruciate or narrow varieties (no restriction of species). Given by his sons, Dr E. Churchill Fox, and his brother, Mr G.F. Fox. Silver Gilt Flora Medal. [Mr Fox of Brislington, near Bristol had died in 1891].

Class C - Mrs Maria Grant's Memorial Prize for 10 varieties of Athyrium filix-femina. Given by her son, Mr W.J.A. Grant. Silver Gilt Flora Medal. [Mrs Grant of Hillersdon House, Devon had died in 1891].

Class D - Mr William Charles Carbonell's Memorial Prize for 10 varieties of Polystichum aculeatum and hybrids with P. aculeatum. Given by "the Family". Silver Gilt Flora Medal. [Mr Carbonell of Usk, Monmouthshire had died c.1889].

Class E - 16 varieties (no restriction of species). Given by the Clifton Zoological Gardens, Mr E. J. Lowe F.R.S., and Major Cowburn F.R.H.S. First Prize, Silver Gilt Flora Medal. [A major part of the Jones and Fox Collections had been given for display at Clifton Zoological Gardens. Major Cowburn died before the show took place].

Among the prizes for best individual specimens, Mr James Moly of Charmouth, Dorset gave a Bronze Flora Medal for the Best specimen of a variegated or golden variety. Edward Lowe won these and most of the other classes (Lowe, 1895) but most of the 'competition' had 'passed on'.

An era in which south-west Britain was the centre of the British 'Fern Cult' had also passed and a new British Pteridological Society had already been founded (as the Northern Pteridological Society) the previous year.

Displays on the Victorian 'Fern Cult' may be seen at the Museum of North Devon in Barnstaple (see Boyd, 1989; Davies, 1991). The author has prepared biographical notes on over 200 men and women connected with the British fern cult in the south-west and the first British Pteridological Society but because of shortage of space here these will be published separately in a future publication of the B.P.S.

 

Acknowledgements

The paper is the result of a private research project undertaken by the author. He is extremely grateful to the many people who have assisted with the search for tit-bits of information, made copies of rare papers or documents available or provided research facilities for the author. He would particularly like to thank (in alphabetical order): Dr Peter Barnes of the Royal Horticultural Society; A.R. Busby, Honorary Secretary of the British Pteridological Society (for providing access to Occasional Paper No.1 of the first British Pteridological Society); W. Deller, Lynton; Anne Hollowell and Ray Bartlett (City of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery); G.D.V. and G. Glynn; Dr E. Mold (Lyn and Exmoor Museum); P.J.M. Nethercott (Bristol Naturalists' Society); North Devon District Council; Louise Rose (North Devon Record Office); John Rowe and other staff of the North Devon Athenaeum Library; Margery Rowe (Devon Record Office); Joy Slocombe and other staff at Ilfracombe Museum; Taunton Local History Library.

 

Bibliography

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ANON. 1890. The Garden, July 26th 1890: 93.

ANON. 1890. Extracts from the Proceedings. J. Roy. Hort. Soc. 12: 133-137.

BELLAIRS, N. 1865. Hardy Ferns - how I collected and cultivated them. Smith, Elder & Co., London.

BOYD, P.D.A. 1989. The new Museum of North Devon - A commitment to ferns, pteridology and pteridomania. Pteridologist 1: 276-278.

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PHILLIPS, W.H. 1905. Some personal reminiscences during fifty years of fern hunting and cultivation. In The British Pteridological Society Abstracts of Reports and Papers Read at Meetings 1894-1905. [Reprinted as B.P.S. Special Publication No. 5, 1991.]

RAVENSHAW, Thomas F. 1860 (Re-issue with Supplement 1872) A List of the Flowering Plants and Ferns growing wild in the county of Devon With their Habitats and Principal Stations. Thomas Bosworth, London.

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