Only some few of our native Ferns are known to possess medicinal

virtues, though they may all be happily pronounced devoid of

poisonous or deleterious properties. As curative simples, a brief

consideration will be given here to the common male and female

Ferns, the Royal Fern, the Hart's Tongue, the Maidenhair, the

common Polypody, the Spleenwort, and the Wall Rue. Generically,

the term fern has been referred to the wo
d feather, because of

the pinnate leaves, or to farr, a bullock, from the use of the plants

as litter for cattle. Ferns are termed Filices, from the Latin word

filum, a thread, because of their filamentary fronds. Each of those

now particularized owes its respective usefulness chiefly to its

tannin; while the few more specially endowed with healing powers

yield also a peculiar chemical acid filicic, which is fatal to worms.

In an old charter, A.D. 855, the [183] right of pasturage on the

common Ferns was called fearnleswe, or Pascua procorum, the

pasturage of swine (from fearrh, a pig). Matthiolus when writing

of the ferns, male and female, says, Utriusque radice sues

pinguescunt. In some parts of England Ferns at large are known as

Devil's brushes; and to bite off close to the ground the first Fern

which appears in the Spring, is said, in Cornwall, to cure toothache,

and to prevent its return during the remainder of the year.

The common Male Fern (Filix mas) or Shield Fern, grows

abundantly in all parts of Great Britain, and has been known from

the times of Theophrastus and Dioscorides, as a specific remedy for

intestinal worms, particularly the tape worm. For medicinal

purposes, the green part of the rhizome is kept and dried; this is then

powdered, and its oleo-resin is extracted by ether. The green fixed

oil thus obtained; which is poisonous to worms, consists of the

glycerides of filocylic and filosmylic acids, with tannin, starch,

gum, and sugar. The English oil of Male Fern is more reliable than

that which is imported from the Continent. Twenty drops made into

an emulsion with mucilage should be given every half-hour on an

empty stomach, until sixty or eighty drops have been taken. It is

imprudent to administer the full quantity in a single dose. The

treatment should be thus pursued when the vigour of the parasite has

been first reduced by a low diet for a couple of days, and is lying

within the intestines free from alimentary matter; a purgative being

said to assist the action of the plant, though it is, independently,

quite efficacious. The knowledge of this remedy had become lost,

until it was repurchased for fifteen thousand francs, in 1775, by the

French king, under the advice of his principal physicians, from

Madame Nouffer, [184] a surgeon's widow in Switzerland, who

employed it as a secret mode of cure with infallible success. Her

method consisted in giving from one to three drams of the powdered

root, after using a clyster, and following the dose up with a purge of

scammony and calomel. The rhizome should not be used medicinally

if more than a year old. A medicinal tincture (H.) is now

prepared from the root-stock with proof spirit, in the autumn

when the fronds are dying.

The young shoots and curled leaves of the Male Fern, which is

distinguished by having one main rib, are sometimes eaten like

asparagus; whilst the fronds make an excellent litter for horses and

cattle. The seed of this and some other species of Fern is so minute

(one frond producing more than a million) as not to be visible to the

naked eye. Hence, on the doctrine of signatures, the plant--like the

ring of Gyges, found in a brazen horse--has been thought to confer

invisibility. Thus Shakespeare says, Henry IV., Act II., Scene 1,

We have the receipt of Fern seed; we walk invisible.

Bracken or Brakes, which grows more freely than any other of the

Fern tribe throughout England, is the Filix foemina, or common

Female Fern. The fronds of this are branched, whilst the male plant

having only one main rib, is more powerful as an astringent, and

antiseptic; the powder thereof freely beaten healeth the galled

necks of oxen and other cattell. Bracken is also named botanically,

Pteris aquilina, because the figure which appears in its succulent

stem when cut obliquely across at the base, has been thought to

resemble a spread eagle; and, therefore, Linnaeus termed the Fern

Aquilina. Some call it, for the same reason, King Charles in the

oak tree; and in Scotland the symbol is said to be an impression of

the Devil's foot. [185] Again, witches are reputed to detest this Fern,

since it bears on its cut root the Greek letter X, which is the initial

of Christos.

In Ireland it is called the Fern of God, because of the belief that if

the stem be cut into three sections, on the first of these will be seen

the letter G; on the second O; and on the third D.

An old popular proverb says about this Bracken:--

When the Fern is as high as a spoon

You may sleep an hour at noon,

When the Fern is as high as a ladle

You may sleep as long as you're able,

When the Fern is looking red

Milk is good with faire brown bread.

The Bracken grows almost exclusively on waste places and

uncultivated ground; or, as Horace testified in Roman days,

Neglectis urenda filix innascitur agris. It contains much potash;

and its ashes were formerly employed in the manufacture of soap.

The young tops of the plant are boiled in Hampshire for hogs' food,

and the peculiar flavour of Hampshire bacon has been attributed to

this custom. The root affords much starch, and is used medicinally.

For thigh aches [sciatica], says an old writer, smoke the legs

thoroughly with Fern braken.

During the Seventeenth Century it was customary to set growing

Brakes on fire with the belief that this would produce rain. A like

custom of firing the Bracken still prevails to-day on the

Devonshire moors. By an official letter the Earl of Pembroke

admonished the High Sheriff of Stafford to forbear the burning of

Ferns during a visit of Charles I., as His Majesty desired that the

country and himself may enjoy fair weather as long as he should

remain in those parts.

In northern climates a coarse kind of bread is made [186] from the

roots of the Brake Fern; whilst in the south the young shoots are

often sold in bundles as a salad. (Some writers give the name of

Lady Fern, not to the Bracken, but to the Asplenium filix

foemina, because of its delicate and graceful foliage.) The Bracken

has branched riblets, and is more viscid, mucilaginous, and diuretic,

than the Male Fern.

Its ashes when burnt contain much vegetable alkali which has been

used freely in making glass.

It was customary to watch the Fern on Midsummer eve, when the

plant put forth at dusk a blue flower, and a wonderful seed at

midnight, which was carefully collected, and known as wish seed.

This gave the power to discover hidden treasures, whilst to drink the

sap conferred perpetual youth.

The Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis), grows abundantly in many

parts of Great Britain, and is the stateliest of Ferns in its favourite

watery haunts. It heeds a soil of bog earth, and is incorrectly styled

the flowering Fern, from its handsome spikes of fructification.

One of its old English names is Osmund, the Waterman; and the

white centre of its root has been called the heart of Osmund. This

middle part boiled in some kind of liquor was supposed good for

persons wounded, dry-beaten, and bruised, or that have fallen from

some high place. The name Osmund is thought to be derived from

os, the mouth, or os, bone, and mundare, to cleanse, or from

gross mond kraut, the Greater Moonwort; but others refer it to

Saint Osmund wading a river, whilst bearing the Christ on his

shoulders. The root or rhizome has a mucilaginous slightly bitter

taste. The tender sprigs of the plant at their first coming are good

to be put into balmes, oyles, and healing plasters. Dodonoeus says,

the harte of the root of [187] Osmonde is good against squattes,

and bruises, heavie and grievous falles, and whatever hurte or

dislocation soever it be. A conserve of these buds, said Dr. Short

of Sheffield, 1746, is a specific in the rickets; and the roots

stamped in water or gin till the liquor becometh a stiff mucilage, has

cured many most deplorable pains of the back, that have confined

the distracted sufferers close to bed for several weeks. This

mucilage was to be rubbed over the vertebrae of the back each night

and morning for five or six days together. Also for rickets, take of

the powdered roots with the whitest sugar, and sprinkle some

thereof on the child's pap, and on all his liquid foods. It maketh a

noble remedy, said Dr. Bowles, without any other medicine. The

actual curative virtues of this Fern are most probably due to the salts

of lime, potash, and other earths, which it derives in solution from

the bog soil, and from the water in which it grows. On July 25th it is

specially dedicated to St. Christopher, its patron saint.

The Hart's Tongue or Hind's Tongue, is a Fern of common English

growth in shady copses on moist banks, it being the Lingua cervina

of the apothecaries, and its name expressing the shape of its fronds.

This, the Scolopendrium vulgare, is also named Button-hole,

Horse tongue; and in the Channel Islands Godshair. The older

physicians esteemed it as a very valuable medicine; and Galen gave

it for diarrhoea or dysentery. By reason of its tannin it will restrain

bleedings, being commended, says Gerard, against the bloody

flux. People in rural districts make an ointment from its leaves for

burns and scalds. It was formerly, in company with the common

Maidenhair Fern, one of the five great capillary herbs. Dr. Tuthill

Massy advises the drinking, in Bright's disease, of as much as three

[188] half-pints daily of an infusion of this Fern, whilst always

taking care to gather the young shoots. Also, in combination (H.)

with the American Golden Seal (Hydrastis canadensis). the Hart's

Tongue has served in not a few authenticated cases to arrest the

progress of that formidable disease, diabetes mellitus. Its distilled

water will quiet any palpitations of the heart, and will stay the

hiccough; it will likewise help the falling of the palate (relaxed

throat), or stop bleeding of the gums if the mouth be gargled


From the Ophioglossum vulgatum, 'Adder's tongue,' or 'Christ's

Spear,' when boiled in olive oil is produced a most excellent greene

oyle. Or rather a balsam for greene wounds, comparable to oyle of

St. John's Wort; if it doth not far surpasse it. A preparation from

this plant known as the green oil of charity, is still in request as

a vulnerary, and remedy for wounds.

The true Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum capillus veneris), of

exquisite foliage, and of a dark crimson colour, is a stranger in

England, except in the West country. But we have in greater

abundance the common Maidenhair (Asplenium trichomanes),

which grows on old walls, and which will act as a laxative

medicine; whilst idiots are said to have taken it remedially, so as to

recover their senses. The true Maidenhair is named Adiantum,

from the Greek: Quod denso imbre cadente destillans foliis tenuis

non insidet humor, Because the leaves are not wetted even by a

heavily falling shower of rain. In vain, saith Pliny, do you plunge

the Adiantum into water, it always remains dry. This veracious

plant doth strengthen and embellish the hair. It, occurs but rarely

with us; on damp rocks, and walls near the sea. The Maidenhair is

called Polytrichon because it brings forth a multitude of hairs;

[189] Calitrichon because it produces black and faire hair;

Capillus veneris because it fosters grace and love.

From its fine hairlike stems, and perhaps from its attributed virtues

in toilet use, this Fern has acquired the name of Our Lady's Hair

and Maria's Fern. The true Maidenhair, says Gerard, maketh

the hair of the head and beard to grow that is fallen and pulled off.

From this graceful Fern a famous elegant syrup is made in France

called Capillaire; which is given as a favourite medicine in

pulmonary catarrh. It is flavoured with orange flowers, and acts as a

demulcent with slightly stimulating effects. One part of the plant is

gently boiled with ten parts of water, and with nineteen parts of

white sugar. Dr. Johnson says Boswell used to put Capillaire into

his port wine. Sir John Hill instructed us that (as we cannot get the

true Maidenhair fresh in England) the fine syrup made in France

from their Fern in perfection, concocted with pure Narbonne honey,

is not by any means to be thought a trifle, because barley water,

sweetened with this, is one of the very best remedies for a violent

cold. But a tea brewed from our more common Maidenhair will

answer the same purpose for tedious coughs. Its leaves are sweet,

mucilaginous, and expectorant, being, therefore, highly useful in

many pulmonary disorders.

The common Polypody Fern, or rheum-purging Polypody grows plentifully

in this country on old walls and stumps of trees, in shady places.

In Hampshire it is called Adder's Tongue, as derived from the

word attor, poison; also Wall-fern, and formerly in Anglo-Saxon

Ever-fern, or Boar-fern. In Germany it is said to have sprung

from the Virgin's milk, and is named Marie bregue. The fresh root

has been used successfully in decoction, or powdered, for

melancholia; [190] also of late for general rheumatic swelling of the

joints. By the ancients it was employed as a purgative. Six drachms

by weight of the root should be infused for two hours in a pint of

boiling water, and given in two doses. This is the Oak Fern of the

herbalists; not that of modern botanists (Polypodium dryopteris);

it being held that such Fern plants as grew upon the roots of an oak

tree were of special medicinal powers, Quod nascit super radices

quercus est efficacius. The true Oak Fern (Dryopteris) grows

chiefly in mountainous districts among the mossy roots of old oak

trees, and sometimes in marshy places. If its root is bruised and

applied to the skin of any hairy part, whilst the person is sweating,

this will cause the hair to come away. Dioscorides said, The root of

Polypody is very good for chaps between the fingers. It serveth,

writes Gerard, to make the belly soluble, being boiled in the broth

of an old cock, with beets or mallows, or other like things, that

move to the stool by their slipperiness. Parkinson says: A dram or

two, it need be, of the powdered dry roots taken fasting, in a cupful

of honeyed water, worketh gently as a purge, being a safe medicine,

fit for all persons and seasons, which daily experience confirmeth.

Applied also to the nose it cureth the disease called polypus, which

by time and sufferance stoppeth the nostrils. The leaves of the

Polypody when burnt furnish a large proportion of carbonate of


The Spleenwort (Asplenium ceterach--an Arabian term), or Scaly

Fern, or Finger Fern, grows on old walls, and in the clefts of moist

rocks. It is also called Miltwaste, because supposed to cure

disorders of the milt, or spleen:--

The Finger Fern, which being given to swine,

It makes their milt to melt away in fine.

[191] Very probably this reputed virtue has mainly become attributed

to the plant, because the lobular milt-like shape of its leaf

resembles the form of the spleen. No herbe maie be compared

therewith, says one of the oldest Herbals, for his singular virtue to

help the sicknesse or grief of the splene. Pliny ordered: It should

not be given to women, because it bringeth barrenness. Vitruvius

alleged that in Crete the flocks and herds were found to be without

spleens, because they browsed on this fern. The plant was supposed

when given medicinally to diminish the size of the enlarged spleen

or ague-cake.

The Wall Rue (Ruta muraria) is a white Maidenhair Fern, and is

named by some Salvia vitoe. It is a small herb, somewhat nearly

of the colour of Garden Rue, and is likewise good for them that

have a cough, or are shortwinded, or be troubled with stitches in the

sides. It stayeth the falling or shedding of the hair, and causeth them

to grow thick, fair, and well coloured. This plant is held by those of

judgment and experience, to be as effectual a capillary herb as any

whatever. Also, it helpeth ruptures in children. Matthiolus hath

known of divers holpen therein by taking the powder of the herb in

drink for forty days together. Its leaves are like those of Rue, and

the Fern has been called Tentwort from its use as a specific or

sovereign remedy for the cure of rickets, a disease once known as

the taint.

The generic appellations of the several species of Ferns are derived

thus: Aspidium, from aspis, a shield, because the spores are

enclosed in bosses; Pteris, from pteerux, a wing, having doubly

pinnate fronds; or from pteron, a feather, having feathery fronds;

Scolopendrium, because the fructification is supposed to

resemble the feet of Scoltpendra, a genus of mydrapods; and

Polypody, many footed, by reason of the pectinate fronds.

[192] There grows in Tartary a singular polypody Fern, of which the

hairy foot is easily made to simulate in form a small sheep. It rises

above the ground with excrescences resembling a head and tail,

whilst having four leg-like fronds. Fabulous stories are told about

this remarkable Fern root; and in China its hairy down is so highly

valued as a styptic for fresh bleeding cuts and wounds, that few

families will be without it. Dr. Darwin, in his Loves of the Plants,

says about this curious natural production, the Polypodium


Cradled in snow, and fanned by Arctic air

Shines, gentle Barometz, thy golden hair;

Rooted in earth each cloven hoof descends,

And found and round her flexile neck she bends:

Crops the green coral moss, and hoary thyme,

Or laps with rosy tongue the melting rime;

Eyes with mute tenderness her distant dam,

Or seems to bleat--a vegetable Lamb.