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, during a walk along through the lanes of Somerset a few weeks ago I was amazed by how subtropical the hedgerows looked. Everywhere the long, green leaves of hart’s tongue fern were decorating the path, bringing a welcome touch of shiny emerald enthusiasm to the otherwise browning foliage. A field of snowdrops didn’t go amiss, either.
The hart’s tongue fern is a member of the Asplenium or spleenwort family, a group of over 700 mostly tropical species. This fern is the only UK species with long, strap-like leaves, which become wavy at the edges as the plant grows older – the name ‘hart’s tongue’ refers to their similarity (in shape though not, we hope, in colour) to the tongue of a young red deer stag. The plant likes shallow soil and is often found growing among the roots of trees and bushes, or in cracks in walls. You can also buy it from many garden centres, and a healthy specimen is a most attractive plant, though they do become rather dog-eared in time (as do most of us).
Hart’s tongue fern is a common plant in the UK, especially in the south-west of England which is where I found this colony. It is native plant of the northern hemisphere, but is rare in the US, occurring in isolated populations, with the American subspecies being classified as Endangered (at least until the current government de-lists it along with all the other lifeforms covered by the Endangered Species Act, but that’s another story).
Why spleenwort, though? Well, as we remember from our discussion of the male fern a few weeks ago, ferns do not produce seeds, or indeed flowers, but instead produce spores. Those of the hart’s tongue fern are very distinctive, producing rows of chocolate-coloured spores on the underside of the leaves, which are shed between August and March. In the photo below, the spores have already gone, but the marks of the sporangia that would have contained them are very clear. The whole ensemble puts me in mind of those lime-flavoured sweets with chocolate filling that I used to munch as a child, but maybe I’m just sugar-deprived. Anyhow, the shape of the sporangia reminded medieval peoples of the shape of the spleen, which indicated to them that the plant was good for treating ailments of this organ via the Doctrine of Signatures (already discussed several times, such as in this piece on nipplewort)
Apparently the lines of dark brown reminded whoever named the plant of a centipede, as scolopendrium is the Latin name of this invertebrate.
According to A Modern Herbal, hart’s tongue fern is useful for liver diseases of all kinds, and for hardness and stoppings of the spleen. The herbalist Culpepper mentions that
‘The distilled water is very good against the passion of the heart, to stay hiccough, to help the falling of the palate and to stay bleeding of the gums by gargling with it’.
Many years before Culpepper, Galen gave it in infusion for dysentery and diarrhoea, and in country areas in the UK it was used in an ointment for burns and scalds.
One rather lovely story about hart’s tongue fern explains one of its alternative names, godshaer. The story tells that, during his wanderings, Jesus become tired, and lay down beside a stream, resting his head on a pillow of hart’s tongue fern. When, refreshed, he awoke and moved on, he left two of his hairs embedded in the plant and, if you break the stipe (the rib in the middle of the leaf) you will find two black ‘hairs’ (actually vascular bundles). If only I had known this story when I was in Somerset I would have given this a go, so feel free to investigate if you pass a plant in your travels (though do apologise to the poor fern first).
The Ainu people of Japan mix hart’s tongue fern with tobacco and smoke it. And the physicians of Myddfai in Wales recommended it particularly for women:
“If you would always be chaste, eat daily some of the herb called hart’s tongue, and you will never assent to the suggestions of impurity.”
Well, harrumph to that. At my age I need all the suggestions of impurity that I can get. But I digress.
And finally, does anyone eat this plant? In North America, young ferns known as fiddleheads are a great delicacy. However, some ferns contain carcinogens, or substances that cause Vitamin B1 deficiency, so this eating ferns is not an activity for the reckless. However, our old friend Robin over at the Eat Weeds website has gone where the brave fear to tread, and his recipe for Buttered Hart’s Tongue Fiddleheads is here.
When I talked about male fern in a previous Wednesday Weed, I mentioned a craze in Victorian times for collecting ferns, called pteridomania. I am very glad that I wasn’t born during this period, for I imagine that you couldn’t walk around a drawing room without sweeping a glass dome full of ailing ferns off of a side table with your bustle. Furthermore, even if you were working-class there was always some Victorian gentleman artist at his easel, capturing your slightly grubby, poverty-stricken beauty as you tried to go about your work. So here, for your delectation, is The Fern Gatherer by Charles Sillem Lidderdale (1831- 1895). Is that a tiny hart’s tongue fern grasped in the over-worked hand of this maiden? I do believe it is.
Photo One (American hart’s tongue fern) – By Linda Swartz – http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/images/hartstonguefern/asplenium_scolopendrium_americanum_hab_lg.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12221569
Photo Two (The Fern Gatherer) – By Charles Sillem Lidderdale – Bonhams, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17926598
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.