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Fern Folklore (and More)

July 17, 2013

A beautiful fern in the fern garden at Como Park in Minneapolis.

Credit: Jasanna Czellar
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Did you know that ferns have a prominent place in folklore?

Ferns are an ancient family of plants—which first show up in fossil records from a time over 100 million years BEFORE dinosaurs walked the Earth. In fact, ferns grew before flowering plants existed.

Long ago, people couldn't explain how ferns reproduced since they lack flowers or seeds. (Today we know that ferns reproduce from spores.)

It was this mystery of the non-flowering fern that led to folklore about mystical flowers as seeds.

Here is some of the folklore that I have have found—and thought that you would enjoy . . .

Fern Folklore

  • During the Middle Ages, ferns were thought to flower and produce seed only once a year—at midnight on St. John's Eve (June 23), also called Midsummer Eve. Since the seeds couldn't be seen, they were believed to be invisible. Many attempts were made to collect them because they allowed people to become invisible, see into the future, and have eternal youth.
     
  • It was also believed that ferns DID flower—but only until the birth of Christ. When all the flowers bloomed in His honor and the fern did not, it was condemned to remain flowerless forever.
     
  • Ferns also played a role in medicine, including uses as a remedy for rheumatism, toothaches, baldness, and nightmares.
     
  • According to the symbolic meanings of plants, the fern stands for "sincerity." Click to see the meaning of your favorite flower or plant.

Fern

Photo: "Glowing Fern" by Almanac reader Karin Shipman

Starting in June, my woods and lowlands in New Hampshire would fill with ferns.  (Ferns require liquid water to reproduce, which is why you'll often find them near streams and moist, forested areas.) They sprout from wet soil in late April and the young fiddleheads appear bright green against the decaying leaves.

Fiddleheads

Have you ever eaten fiddleheads? So-called because it looks like the tuning end of a fiddle, the fiddlehead the very top of the young ostrich fern, still tightly furled and sheathed in a covering that can be a challenge to remove. (Be aware that it's only the ostrich variety that is edible. In addition, they must be picked before unfurling; the leaves that follow this growth phase are poisonous.) Many people in this area boil the young plant for an asparagus-like treat. 


Photo: "Ostrich Fern/ Fiddleheads" by Almanac reader Diane Peck

Growing Ferns

If your yard has indirect sunlight and moist soil, consider growing ferns. They are one of the more deer-resistant plants, too. This page includes a list of native ferns in North America.

Many ferns are also grown as houseplants. Here are a couple popular ferns with some growing tips:

Boston ferns grow well with temperatures that are 68 to 75 degrees F during the day and 50 to 69 degrees F at night. They require humidity between 50 and 80 percent, and they do not like drafts. Boston ferns stop growing from fall to winter and during this dormant stage like the temperature to be 50 degrees, minimal watering (the soil should be barely moist), and no fertilizer. During the winter, mist the leaves twice a day. The fern's root system can occupy up to three quarters of the solid space in the pot without harm, and this plant does not like to be repotted.

Staghorn ferns are often presented as gifts. They can not be planted in ordinary potting soil, so that's the first thing to check. They should be placed on a piece of bark or (unreated) wood board. Place a few handfuls of damp sphagnum moss or orchid mix on the board and place the fern on top so that the flat round basal fronds are touching the board. Firmly secure the fern to the board with twine, a thin wire, or fishing line. (The fern will attach itself to the wood eventually.) To water staghorn fern, soak the entire arrangement in a bucket or sink. Keep the fern in the shade and water daily until it takes hold of the wood. Feed every two weeks year-round with a balanced liquid fertilizer diluted by half.

Do you have ferns in your area or do you grow ferns? Please share your thoughts on ferns—and folklore!

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Catherine, our New Media Editor, joined The Old Farmer's Almanac in 2008. She edits content on both this Web site, Almanac.com, and the companion site to The Old Farmer's Almanac for Kids publication, Almanac4kids.com. She also pens the Almanac Companion enewsletters and keeps up with readers on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest!

Comments

I too like ferns and other

By Sheila Nathans

I too like ferns and other Pteridophytes!! If anyone can tell me step by step how to grow fern in my home garden, it would be a great help to me.

Catherine, you have been a

By Michael Moore 2

Catherine, you have been a most proficient and educational addition to the staff of OFA. Thank you for your hard work in research and communication and for your most informative and readable articles. God bless and keep up the good work.

Great article on ferns.

By Michael Moore 2

Great article on ferns. Interesting to learn their place in ancient folk-lore. Thanks for the information!

Thank you, Michael. Glad you

By Catherine Boeckmann

Thank you, Michael. Glad you enjoyed! We discovered this folklore while camping with family in Indiana. It rained and we spent time studying ferns in the nature center. Learning often comes from the unexpected incident!

I was gifted with a fern

By Jat Tillman

I was gifted with a fern several years ago ,I planted it and it seemed to be doing well. the next spring nothing appeared so i assumed it had died . Two years later it sprang up as a welcome surprise . it has flourished ever since

The fern photos are

By Hoosier

The fern photos are beautiful! I'm afraid my fern experience has been limited to buying hanging ferns from the local nursery. But they are wonderfully lush and last the whole season!

For fertilizer for my

By Patricia Larsen

For fertilizer for my staghorn ferns was giving the a banana about once every 2 weeks...skin and all

It must like the potassium! I

By Catherine Boeckmann

It must like the potassium! I came across these wonderful photos of staghorns. I'm not necessarily a big "Martha" fan but thought you'd really enjoy the information and photos:

http://www.themarthablog.com/2012/10/have-a-look-at-some-of-my-staghorn-...

Fresh, sauteed fiddleheads

By Tj Hooker

Fresh, sauteed fiddleheads are a wonderful spring treat- always special when you find them in the farmer's market.

TJ (like the name you chose),

By Catherine Boeckmann

TJ (like the name you chose), I picked up some fiddleheads from the market last year and served them as a side to some salmon and eggs. Wonderful! It does involve a bit of work to cook them properly, but it was fun to try.  The taste was in between asparagus, broccoli, and spinach. 

Well said “Go fishing when

By Audrey Pierce

Well said “Go fishing when the breeze is from the west, rather than from the north or the east. An optimal time is one hour before or after high or low tide or during”

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