Collecting the folklore and uses of plants


The fern hart’s-tongue, Asplenium (formerly Phyllitis) scolopendrium, is common in damp, shady places throughout most of Britain and Ireland.  Local names include adder’s tongue in Devon, cow-tongue and fox-tongue in Co. Donegal, horse- (or hoss-)tongue in Dorset, seaweed-fern in Surrey, and snake-fern or snake-leaves in Somerset.

There is a Devon legend, published in 1904, that ‘it was once the pillow of the Son of Man, when he had nowhere to lay His head; in return for this service, He left two hairs of His most blessed and dear head, which the plant treasures in her ripe stems, as His legacy – two auburn hairs which children find and show’.  Presumably the Guernsey name Christ’s hair refers to a smilar legend.

There are occasional records of hart’s-tongue being used medicinally.  W.A. Bromfield writing of the Isle of Wight in 1856 a ‘rustic practice’ was to apply the fresh fronds to bad legs (‘erysipelatous erruptions‘) as a cooling remedy.

Other records were collected as part of the Irish Folklore Commission’s 1937-9 Schools’ Scheme.  In Co. Limerick: ‘burn a leaf called hart’s-tongue and apply it to a burn and it would cure it’.  In Co. Waterford: ‘hart’s-tongue fern was used as a cure for scalds and burns; the underside up it was laid on the scald or burn; fresh leaves were applied when needed until the cure was complete’.

Adapted from Vickery’s Folk Flora (2019).

Images:  main, Manchester, September 2022; upper inset, grounds of Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire, October 2022;  lower inset, Ipswich, Suffolk, July 2022.

Edited 17 November 2022.