Dear Readers, I was in Somerset this week visiting my 91 year-old Aunt Hilary. Her garden really is a delight – at the moment it is absolutely full of cyclamen, but I have already waxed lyrical about them here, and here, so I have turned to the more subtle delights of this little fern. Maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes) is in the same genus as another common fern of these parts, hart’s tongue fern, but this plant is an altogether shyer character. It is easily identified by the delicate lozenge-shaped leaflets emerging from the jet black stems. Many ferns are known as spleenworts, because it was thought that the spores, which appear on the underside of the leaves, resembled the shape of the spleen. Under our old friend the Doctrine of Signatures, this was believed to mean that God was posting a message on the plant about how it could be used by humans.
Walls are a very special habitat, and only a few plants have learned the art of surviving on them. There is very little soil for the roots to anchor themselves in, nutrients are scarce, and, depending on whereabouts on the wall you germinate, it can be very dark or very exposed. Water too may be ever present (at the bottom of a shady wall) or very transient. All in all, wall-living plants have to be resilient and well-adapted.
Maidenhair spleenwort is happy growing in any kind of substrate (see below) and it also likes the damp, shadier conditions of a north-facing wall. The plant that I was admiring has a couple of relatives hiding close by. It all looks very Victorian somehow, the Victorians being great pteridophiles.
The spores of the plant are produced on the underside of special leaves called sporophylls (a normal leaf that produces sugars via photosynthesis is called a trophophyll). I love the spores of ferns, they have a kind of geometrical precision that delights me.
The story of the maidenhair spleenwort is rather more complicated than you might think, however. For a start, it is a true ‘citizen of the world’. It is native to every continent except Antarctica, and it has evolved to have a variety of different subspecies, each with a different ‘lifestyle’. One subspecies, Asplenium trichomanes trichomanes prefers acidic rocks such as basalt and sandstone, and is found mainly in mountainous northern areas in Europe and North America. Another, Asplenium trichomanes quadrivalens, prefers alkaline rocks such as limestone and will grow in mortar, so I suspect that this is ‘our’ plant. It is much commoner in Europe than in North America. Majorca, Madeira and the Azores also have their own subspecies of the plant. Furthermore, where the subspecies intermingle they can also hybridise. I suspect that botanists who specialise in ferns will have plenty of work sorting that lot out for generations to come.
It just goes to show that some supposedly ‘primitive’ and simple plants have staggeringly complicated backstories, just as it’s often the quietest and most self-effacing people who have lived the most extraordinary lives.
The Plant Lives website describes how, in North America, maidenhair spleenwort was used by the Native American Hopi tribe as part of their rain-making rituals – the plant was soaked in water, and the water was then painted onto prayersticks. For the Cherokee people, the plant had many medicinal uses, including for liver and uterine problems, and was also used to make cough mixture. In County Cavan in Ireland, the plant was boiled with honey and oatmeal as a cure for dysentery.
In Slavic folklore, it was believed that anyone who found a ‘fern flower’ would be happy and rich for the rest of their lives. The fern was believed to flower only once a year, on Midsummer’s Eve. As ferns are not flowering plants I fear that the search for a bloom would have been in vain although maybe the hunt provided an opportunity for young people to go off into the woods on their own on this magical shortest night of the year.
Now, as you know, this blog takes me to some fascinating and unlikely places. This week, it’s taken me to the paintings of Gerard David (1460 to 1523), a Netherlandish painter who was renowned for his use of colour. However, he was also a painter of extraordinarily detailed plants, which often seem to pop up everywhere amidst his portraits of religious figures. One of his paintings, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, features two ferns including Maidenhair Spleenwort growing out of the wall behind Mary and Joseph.
I am indebted to Caleb Leech, the Managing Horticulturalist at the Met Cloisters, for pointing this out, and for his explanation of the inclusion of these humble plants in the work:
‘While the setting of the painting could simply depict the common state of stone buildings during the Middle Ages, I believe it also demonstrates a love for the bucolic, ramshackle idyll of nature. This same sentiment is witnessed in the modern Gothic folly (an ornamental building with no practical use), or in a recreated medieval ruin set amidst a garden. Then, perhaps even more than now, weedy or opportunistic species like ferns and dandelions were much appreciated. The artist’s careful attention to the ferns softened the setting and emphasized how much the medieval world was fundamentally connected with plants.
And here is the entire triptych:
And finally, a poem. As you might expect, the canon is not exactly snowed under with poems that specifically mention the maidenhair spleenwort, but my search for the mention of ferns in general has brought me to Theodore Roethke, an American poet who had his problems with mental health and alcoholism but who wrote some of my very favourite poems. Here is an excerpt from his 1948 poem ‘A Field of Light’. It seems to me to conjure that ecstatic feeling that I sometimes get when I’m walking in nature, alone, on a late spring morning. See what you think.
A Field of Light by Theodore Roethke
The dirt left my hand, visitor.
I could feel the mare’s nose.
A path went walking.
The sun glittered on a small rapids.
Some morning thing came, beating its wings.
The great elm filled with bird.
The fat lark sand in the field;
I touched the ground, the ground warmed by the killdeer,
The salt laughed and the stones;
The ferns had their ways, and the pulsing lizards,
And the new plants, still awkward in their soil,
The lovely diminutives.
I could watch! I could watch!
I saw the separateness of all things!
My heart lifted up with the great grasses;
The weeds believed me, and the nesting birds.
There were clouds making a rout of shapes crossing a windbreak of cedars,
And a bee shaking drops from a rain-soaked honeysuckle.
The worms were delighted as wrens.
And I walked, I walked through the light air;
I moved with the morning.
Photo One by Bjorn S at https://www.flickr.com/photos/40948266@N04/40523421534/
Photo Two from https://metmuseum.org/blogs/in-season/2015/cryptogams