Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

QUERY: Medicinal uses of ferns

Dryopteris_filix_mas_nf (1)Nicky Nicoll is helping to prepare a guide book to the Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Herb Garden, and in connection with this is trying to discover any medicinal uses of three ferns: Adiantum pedatum (five-finger fern), Dryopteris filix-mas (male fern) and Asplenium scolopendrium, formerly Phyllitis scolopendrium (hart’s tongue).
If you can help please send any information to

1. Male fern was widely used as a vermicide (see Allen & Hatfield, 2004: 63; Darwin, 1996: 60; Grieve, 1931: 300 and Hatfield, 2007: 131). According to the first of these authorities: ‘male fern … was recommended as a vermicide by all the leading Classical writers. According to the last ‘it has been shown that the oleo-resin that this fern yields paralyses the muscles of the tapeworm, making it release its hold on the gut wall’, and in the seventeenth century it was used to treat burns, as a purge and for treating sores.
Grieve (1931: 304) states that hart’s tongue ‘was formerly considered one of the five great capillary herbs’ and adds that it was been used to treat diarrhoea and dysentery, scalds, burns and piles, and Bright’s disease, and ‘it is specially recommended for removing obstructions from the liver and spleen, also for removing gravelly deposits in the bladder’. She also records that in homoeopathy it is administered in combination with golden seal (Hydrastis canadensis) to treat diabetes.
Allen & Hatfield (2004: 60), who include only remedies which they consider to be ‘folk’, provide an extensive list of ailments which were treated or alleviated using hart’s tongue. These include colds and pulmonary congestion in Devon and the Hebrides, warts in Wiltshire, erysipetaloid eruptions on the legs on the Isle of Wight, and burns, insect stings, dog bites, jaundice, ringworm and asthma in Ireland.
Writing of Scotland, Darwin (1996: 60) states that fronds of hart’s tongue were made into an ointment to treat piles, wounds and scars, and on Skye ‘ale brewed from hart’s tongue .. and [maidenhair] spleenwort [Asplenium trichomanes] was drunk for coughs and consumption’.
Hatfield (2007: 10) draws attention to an early eighteenth-century manuscript containing a recipe for a health-restoring drink made from agrimony (Agrimonia sp.), hart’s tongue, dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and bark of green ash (Fraxinus excelsior) ‘all dried in the sun and then soaked in small beer’.

Allen, D.E. & Hatfield, G., 2004, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition.
Grieve, Mrs M. (ed. Mrs C.F. Lyell), 1931, A Modern Herbal
Darwin, T., 1996, The Scots Herbal
Hatfield, G., 2007, Hatfield’s Herbal. [RV, 20 October 2013].

2. According to Prof. O.Phelps Brown in his Complete Herbalist, London, 1884: 119:
Adiantum pedatum leaves are ‘bitterish and somewhat aromatic, and part with their virtues upon being immersed in boiling water … It is refrigerant, expectorant, tonic, and subastringent. A decoction of the plant is most gratefully cooling in febrile diseases, and it is a great benefit in coughs, catarrh, hoarseness, influenza, asthma, pleurisy, etc. The decoction, or syrup, can be used freely’ [RV, 23 December 2013].

Image: male fern; C.A.M. Lindman (1856-1928).

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