Photography by Scott Irvine
There is something inherently magical about ferns. Perhaps it’s because they’ve retained their prehistoric look. Ferns took root long before animals walked the earth and over a hundred million years before dinosaurs made the scene. Groves of one-hundred-twenty-foot-tall fern trees with fifteen-foot fronds shaded a world crawling with exotic creatures that seem to us more mythical than real. Today, many ferns remain unchanged from their primeval beginnings and can be considered living fossils, having long outlived those massive “terrible lizards”: it’s as if their development was frozen in time. This could be why ferns seem right at home in the faerie realm. It’s no surprise the name FernGully was chosen as the name of an enchanted faerie-inhabited rainforest in the 1992 animated movie of the same name. Many nineteenth-century paintings of faerie kingdoms are embellished with ferns and fronds, lending an otherworldly and fantastic sensibility to these enchanted landscapes.
Fittingly, ferns have rather fanciful names: moonwort, fairy moss, maidenhair, Christmas, and ostrich; there’s the lady fern, the sensitive fern, the royal fern, the licorice fern, the cinnamon fern, the Venus-hair fern, and the bird’s-nest fern. In fact, there are over eleven thousand different species that range from the small South American aquatic fern marsilea, which looks like a four-leaf clover, to the sixty-five-foot Norfolk tree fern of Norfolk Island in the South Pacific. Ferns are also mysterious. They are classified as Pteridophytes, which comes from the Greek root pteri, meaning feather, which aptly describes the look of many fern fronds or leaves. Indeed, the word fern comes from the Anglo-Saxon fearn, which also means feather.
Ferns are cryptogams like mosses, lichens, and algae, bearing no flower or fruit. Flowering plants didn’t appear until two hundred million years after ferns. Since ferns have no flowers, they yield no seeds. This confounded scientists for centuries and led to a lot of confusion and conjecture as to how ferns propagated. It seemed they sprung up by magic. Legends were created to explain this great mystery. It was assumed that, since no one could ever find the elusive fern seed, it must be invisible. This notion led to the folklore that anyone carrying a fern seed would likewise be rendered invisible.
Apparently, this was common knowledge in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so much so that two of its most famous English Renaissance playwrights have characters bandying about this wisdom. In William Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Part I, a scheming highwayman tries to set his accomplice at ease by explaining they will not be caught; he assures him: “We have the receipt of fern seed; we walk invisible” (Act II, Scene I). In Ben Johnson’s comedy New Inn or The Light Heart, a servant ordered to lay low explains to his master why he’s been discovered: “Because indeed I had no med’cine, Sir, to go invisible: No fern-seed in my pocket” (Act I, Scene VI).
The folklore of ferns has as much to do with seeing as not seeing. Ferns supposedly have the power to restore sight. In Martin Martin’s A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (1703), there is a remedy for “eyes that are blood-shot or become blind for some days.” The cure is to apply the blades of a fern frond mixed with egg whites to the face and brows while the patient lies on his back.
Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), an eclectic nineteenth-century scholar, author, and Anglican priest best known for penning the hymn “Onward Christian Soldier,” wrote among other works a sixteen-volume series of The Lives of the Saints, a collection of ghost stories, The Book of Were-Wolves, and a volume titled Old English Fairy Tales (1895). One of these fairy tales, “The Shepherd’s Daughter,” tells of a duchess who goes out sailing on a large lake while she lazily knits with her ladies. Every so often she thrusts a knitting needle into the water to see how deep the lake is. Eventually, an angry merman surfaces alongside the boat, startling the duchess and her entourage. The creature reproaches the duchess for foolishly blinding his three mer-babies with her knitting needles and places a curse on her young single son. Later, the distraught duchess has a dream in which she is told to collect fern seeds and sprinkle them over the lake. The very next day she and her ladies-in-waiting gather the fern seeds and the duchess scatters them upon the surface of the water as she sings:
“The fern-seed right and left I strew,
Mer-man, for your babies three;
I grieve that I did wrong to you.
Fern-seed maketh eyes to see.”
The merman appears again, thanks her for restoring his mer-babies’ sight, and so agrees to lift the curse … but only after the son gets married. Ferns can also give the gift of second sight. A Russian folktale tells of a farmer searching for his lost cattle. While he’s traipsing through a fern field, a seed accidently falls into his shoe. He immediately knows where his cattle have gone and is able to recover them. On his way home with his herd, he has a vision of a vast treasure beneath the ground and knows exactly where to dig to retrieve it. Unfortunately, after he gets his shovel, he changes into his boots and instantly forgets where the treasure has been buried. Austrian and Slavic folklore tells that anyone who finds a fern flower becomes omniscient, can see buried treasures, and can understand the language of animals and birds. In Finland there are remote spots called Aarnivalkea where will o’ the wisps glow phosphorescently, identifying the locations where faerie gold is buried. Anyone carrying a fern seed will be led to these hidden treasures under the cloak of invisibility and become infinitely wealthy. In some old countries, such as the Czech Republic’s Bohemia, holding fern seeds guaranteed you would always have money.
So how is it that one can acquire a fern seed, especially an invisible one? We need to look first to the flower, but ferns don’t have flowers. Or do they? Since no one had ever seen a fern flower, it was rumored that they must bloom at midnight. In England, during the Middle Ages, it was believed one could harvest the magical fern seed by stacking twelve pewter plates in a bed of ferns. At midnight, a brilliant blue blossom opened, producing a single golden seed. The seed would pass through eleven of the pewter plates and come to rest on the twelfth. Other myths said the flower was a bright red blossom that lit up the woods when it opened at midnight. At this moment the devil would snatch it for himself.
Many folktales across Europe proclaim that the fern blooms just one night a year—on June 23rd or St. John’s Eve exactly at the stroke of midnight, the time St. John the Baptist is supposed to have been born. In different tales, this day is sometimes referred to as Midsummer’s Eve or the summer solstice. A story from Poland tells about St. John’s Night, said to be the shortest night of the year and the only night the fern flower blossoms, vanishing at the first crow of the rooster. A young boy sneaks into the woods and tries to steal the flower on this magical evening for two consecutive years, but fails both times as the rooster crows before he has time to seize the stem of the flower. On the third attempt, he finally succeeds. His every wish is immediately granted but according to legend, whoever takes a fern flower cannot share his wealth with anyone else or he will lose it all. The boy in turn is forced to become selfish and cold-hearted in order to retain his power and fortune. When he loses all the people he once loved and is quite alone in the world, he realizes the mistake he has made and wishes to die. As all his wishes are immediately granted, the ground splits open and swallows him into its depths.
In Russia, St. John’s Eve is called Kupala Night and because of the differences between the eastern Gregorian calendar and western Julian calendar it takes place on the eve of July 7th. The Ukrainian/Russian author Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) wrote the story “St. John’s Eve” based on the Kupala Night legend and the quest for the fern seed. A young man who is too poor to be given his sweetheart’s hand in marriage is told by an old man the secret of acquiring the fern blossom. After a frightful night in a forest teeming with unseen demons and echoing with thunder, the young man plucks the red flower and, as it opens, it shines like a flame. The old man—who turns out to be the devil in disguise—appears with the witch Baba Yaga, who stamps upon the ground, illuminating jewels, gems, and cauldrons filled with gold. But before the witch will allow the young man access to these treasures, he must first give her human blood. Needless to say, the young man and his beloved do not live happily ever after. The one thing all of the St. John’s Eve fern tales have in common is a be-careful-what-you-wish-for ending. The moral being: if you ever see a fern flower at midnight, best leave it alone.
It is more usual for ferns to protect against witches, especially the common bracken or brake fern, which grows all over the world in wooded thickets, open pastures, and moorlands. When the bracken stem is sliced at an angle it reveals a pattern that is interpreted in various ways and gives rise to its many names. Linnaeus, renowned eighteenth-century Swedish botanist, called it the eagle fern, others call it “King Charles in the Oak,” and it’s known in Scotland as the devil’s hoof. Some see the Greek letter “X,” which is the initial of Christ. This alone is said to keep witches, werewolves, and other evil spirits at bay. Ferns also reputedly protected the carrier against magical charms and incantations. Waving a frond before a witch was like holding a cross before a vampire. Shepherds in Brittany and Normandy used to create crosses out of ferns to protect themselves and their flocks, and in the Slavic countries, whenever anyone wanted to bathe or swim in a lake they would weave ferns in their hair to protect them from the legendary Rusalki, freshwater sirens that would drown a mortal if given the chance.
There is a fantastical fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen called “The Traveling Companion” (1835) that illustrates both powers of invisibility and the anti-witch properties ascribed to the fern. An orphaned young man who is so “good and harmless among men” that he is able to see faeries sets out to find his fortune in the wide world. He soon happens upon a kindly traveler. Hitting it off, the two decide to journey together. As they stop to eat their breakfast one morning, an old woman carrying a heavy load of willow twigs and three fern stems approaches them, slips, and breaks her leg. The young traveler’s companion takes out a salve that magically knits her bone. All he asks for are the woman’s three ferns. The young man is as bewildered as the old woman at this request. Later in the story, the kindly traveler puts the ferns to good use; under the protection of invisibility, he chases a killer witch and thrashes her with the ferns until her welts bleed.
In the end an evil spell is lifted and the witch reverts back to her kind-hearted, beautiful self. In an experiment that sounds like a St. John’s Eve tale, Hieronymus Bock (1498-1554), a German botanist, laid out white cloths beneath the ferns in the middle of a forest and camped out around a large bonfire on four consecutive Midsummer nights.
There were no enchanted flowers but in the early morning he found small black poppy-like seeds on his linens. Of course, these were not fern seeds but the spores that were released from the brownish-grey spots known as sori (singular: sorus) located on the underside of the fronds. A fern can have up to twenty million spores, sometimes as small as dust particles.
Scarcely visible to the naked eye, fern spores scatter on the wind like faerie dust, mingle in the clouds with volcanic ash, and can be found at the heart of snowflakes, or nestled in the dense fur of a stoat, or riding the feathery tufts of a horned owl. They can sail on a current of air for hundreds even thousands of miles over oceans to be deposited on distant shores.
In 1848, Michael Jerome Leszczyc-Suminski, a Polish count with an interest in botany, finally discovered the missing link that completed the life cycle of the fern, which is as magical as any of their myths or fairy tales. When a fern spore finds the right balance of temperature, light, and moisture, it begins to germinate—but does not grow into anything that looks like a fern. This is because fern spores develop into an entirely different plant: a small dime-sized, green heart-shaped leaf that bears no resemblance to its feathery looking parent. It’s as if the fern-child were a changeling. In fact, it doesn’t even have roots; this new plant is called a prothallium and contains the sex organs of both male and female on its leaf-like underside, where egg and sperm are produced. As in humans, the sperm of the prothallium has a flagellum, a whip-like tail that helps it swim through water to fertilize the egg. (Interestingly, this makes humans more like ferns than flowering plants whose sperm lack flagella.) The fertilized egg grows into an embryo complete with roots, stem, and leaves. In time, the baby fern sends out fiddleheads coiled as tightly as a pugilist’s fist. They rise up from the soil and unfold into the recognizable lacy fronds of a fern similar not to its parent but to its grandparent. It takes three generations for a fern to give rise to another fern. Imagine if your parents were different creatures from yourself and that you only resembled your grandparents in appearance—now you begin to understand what it might feel like to be a fern.
That such a peculiar method of procreation has worked for eons is a testament to the fern’s design. There has been no need for ferns to change. They are masters of their environment just as they are. Since they have no pollen, ferns are not reliant upon the help of birds and bees in reproducing, something that puts many flowering plants at a disadvantage. The intrigue of the fern has not diminished over the centuries and perhaps its biology and natural history are even more magical and mysterious than its mythology. It seems something amazing is always being discovered about them—they are great at tidying up the environment; some pull arsenic out of the soil, while others like the Boston fern are known to detoxify the air, removing formaldehyde and toluene. It’s no surprise ferns have survived through many cataclysmic planetary events. And they will likely continue to unfurl their fiddleheads if humans should ever go the way of the dinosaur.