Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, on a wet and windy Sunday afternoon in January it was hard to find any wild plants to write about for the Wednesday Weed. I was half-tempted to feature the Amaryllis which is doing splendidly in a pot in my writing room, but I can hardly say that I didn’t plant it deliberately. And so I wandered out to the recycle bin and spotted this sad little specimen of male fern, doing its best against the slugs and the darkness and the damp. It has popped up beside a doormat that I keep meaning to throw out, and it provided a welcome hint of fresh green.
Ferns have an otherworldly, alien quality to them. They propagate by spores, rather than by flowers and seeds. At one point in earth’s evolution they were the dominant plants, first appearing during the Carboniferous about 360 million years ago. Dragonflies with 30 inch wingspans flitted among their fronds, and two-foot long scorpions hid in their shade. In short, walking through a fern-forest during this period would have been a rather alarming experience.
The names of the parts of the fern leaf are enigmatic. The stalk is the stipe. The mid-rib is the rachis, as it is in a bird’s feather. Most elegantly of all, an emerging fern, curled up like a caterpillar, is named ‘crozier’ after the bishop’s staff.
You may be wondering why this plant is called ‘male fern’. It appears that when it was named, it was felt to be the partner of a different species, the ‘lady fern’ (pictured above). The male fern was ‘robust in appearance and vigorous in growth’, while the lady fern was altogether more demure. You might argue that it’s this kind of gender stereotyping that’s gone a long way to making a mess of the world, but then I suspect the plants were named a very long time ago.
An alternative name for male fern is ‘worm fern’, which may be a reference to those curly croziers. However, the root of the plant was also used as a remedy for worms (an antihelmintic, another great new word for my collection). Was this because it was actually efficacious (it contains a substance called flavaspidic acid) or was it because the appearance of the worm-like fronds was considered to be an indication from God of what the plant was meant to be used for? Quite probably a bit of both, I suspect. These days, in the West at least, parasitic worms are on the decrease, and there are other remedies if you do contract them.
Incidentally, there are currently some fascinating studies on the effects of infestation with parasites and positive effects on the immune system. There are some indications that asthma, IBS, arthritis and MS symptoms can all be alleviated where the patients have been deliberately infected with different kinds of worms. The Wikipedia page here is a good overview, but New Scientist has a number of interesting articles on the subject. It seems that our fondness for hygiene, while generally a good thing, might have a number of deleterious side effects.
If you are not infected with worms, you might still want to seek out a male fern. According to folklore, it can make you invisible, a most useful attribute when trying to avoid your boss or indulge in some shady activity. Apparently anyone carrying it will be rendered imperceptible to the naked eye. I tried it with a few fronds plucked during the deluge but was still clearly visible (and wet). And then I read some more. Apparently, it’s the fern seeds that make you invisible. Ferns, as mentioned above, don’t have seeds. Therefore, if you find some they must be invisible and will ergo make you invisible too. Just like me not to read the small print. Plus, the seed was meant to be gathered on Midsummer’s Eve, along, it appears, with the rest of the plant (see below).
The root of the plant is known as ‘St John’s Hand’, and, if harvested and dried by a bonfire on Midsummer’s Eve is said to provide a powerful protection against any kind of misfortune, from ghosts and the evil eye to illness and bad luck. It’s said that Genghis Khan carried this charm on his person at all times, and it certainly worked for him. The trick is to tie five pieces of the root together in a hand shape, with the stem of the fern as the ‘wrist’. There’s a fine picture of one here.
If this were not enough, male fern can also be used in a potion to make a man fall in love.During Victorian times there was a positive craze for ferns, as described by author Dr Sarah Whittingham FSA in her book ‘Fern Fever: The Story of Pteridomania’. It may well have been triggered by Wordsworth et al, who waxed lyrical about ferns in The Lyrical Ballads. Here, Wordsworth is discussing the royal fern, Osmunda regalis, which grew in the Lake District.
‘Many such there are,
Fair Ferns and Flowers, and chiefly that tall Fern
So stately, of the Queen Osmunda named;
Plant lovelier, in its own retired abode,
On Grasmere’s beach, than Naiad by the side
Of Grecian brook, or Lady of the Mere,
Sole-sitting by the shores of old romance.’
I studied the Lyrical Ballads for my A-Levels back in 1978 and even that degree of immersion didn’t win me over to their charms – I still find them vaguely irritating (though I’m very happy to hear from you if you love them. I am not beyond convincing). But regardless of the cause, pteridomania led to a trend for fern patterns on wallpaper and porcelain, china and plaster. Native species were driven to the edge of extinction by Victorian collectors who were keen to imprison plants in their indoor glasshouses, called ‘Wardian Cases’. These were essential as the air pollution from coal fires would otherwise lead to the death of the plants.
These days, we have moved away from using ferns as indoor or garden plants, in spite of their great suitability for dark rooms, or those with humid atmospheres. But I am starting a one-woman drive to bring back the fern. In a north-facing garden, with two narrow, dark alleys, the ferns not only survive, but thrive. Their leaves offer a splendid green counterpoint on dark winter days. And if one day a two-foot long scorpion appears from under a frond, or a giant dragonfly flits past, I shall be delighted. I’m not called Bugwoman for nothing, y’know.
Photo One (Croziers) – By Rror – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4072985
Photo Two (Male Fern) – By No machine-readable author provided. Valérie75 assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
All other blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!
A plant that I could never warm to. Growing up in south Wales, they were everywhere on the mountains where we played and always looked evil.
I hadn’t realized how much folklore existed around them.
Hi Toffeeapple, I have a friend who is actually phobic about ferns and bracken, and so you are not the only one who has noticed their sinister character…
I too think ferns are worth reviving – we try to cultivate them in wet dark corners of the garden, and they seem to survive. Like you, I never took to the Lyrical Ballads – apart from sounding like prose roughly arranged in stanza shaped chunks, they seem, at times to be just plain boring! Thanks for an enjoyable piece, as ever!
Thank you, Brian. I’m glad I’m not the only one who isn’t won over by the Lyrical Ballads. Perhaps we have a Wordsworth-appreciation gene missing 🙂
I enjoyed every bit of this posting (so what’s new?) and do agree about how ferns thrive in town gardens. My husband caught fern-mania a while back and has stuck them in all over the garden. Yes, they’re elegant and interesting but I long for some COLOUR.
Thank you, Ann! Glad you enjoyed it. And yes, ferns are all very well, but we all need some flowers I fear. I’m guessing that bulbs would add some early-season colour? At least, that was my theory , but I fear that the squirrels have scoffed the lot.
I have some wonderful ferns called Rabbitfoot- they put out their soft little paws and cling, and they’re very easy to propagate.
Lyrical Ballads – I just can’t shake the feeling that Wordsworth was a pompous ass, even if I do love parts of The Prelude.
Your ferns sound lovely, I am definitely going to get some more. And it’s great to find another member of the ‘not sure about Wordsworth’ club, though you’re right, there are some wonderful things in The Prelude. I also rather love ‘Ode.Intimations of Immortality’, mainly for the ‘trailing clouds of glory’ verse. So maybe the jury is out!
“Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
like harmony in music”…
I have a wonderful fern called Rabbitsfoot that puts out its soft little paws and clings and is very easy to propagate.
Lyrical Ballads – I can’t shake the feeling that Wordsworth is a pompous ass, even if I do love parts of The Prelude.
We inherited about 5 large ferns in our north-facing garden and I bought a small indoor one which lives on the north-facing downstairs toilet window. I love them, they remind me of my childhood in Cumbria. Sadly one in the garden will be removed, possibly relocated if it survives, as I don’t like where it is.
I’m sure it won’t mind being moved, Alison, they seem pretty tough plants to me! I have some in a pot which have grown so big that I’ll have to split them up, so let’s both keep our fingers crossed that the transplanting works….
Thank you for a most delightful and edifying post. And thank you for the Wordsworth–I do like Lyrical Ballads but was not exposed to them until I was much older than you were, which could make all the difference.
I love your delightful and beautiful and informative blog.
Thank you, Gubbinal! Maybe I will go back to the Lyrical Ballads, you’re right, 18 is a bit young to be exposed to them. I find that many of the books and poetry that I couldn’t make head nor tail of at that age is much clearer to me now…
Love those last couple of sentences Vivienne, they made me laugh out loud 🙂 I do have an appreciation for the maidenhair ferns that grow along the wall in our local park, but in our north facing yard we also have a couple of weedy fern fronds growing out of one of the walls. Who knew they had such uses, I’ll certainly try to sense those invisible seeds in the future.
Yes, do let me know how you get on with the invisible seeds 🙂
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