Folklore in My Garden – Ferns

And when the sunset reddened on our woods,
I came upon a pathway fringed with ferns,
That led through brushwood to a little dell,
All dreamy with its stillness ‘mid the hills.

Lillian Gray, 1864

Ferns grow everywhere here in Coventry, CT, and to our pleasure, frequently volunteer in our more shady gardens. Long before Harry Potter, humans have wished for the quality of invisibility at will. “We have the receipt of fern-seede – we walke invisible”, wrote Shakespeare in Henry IV. There you go! Just get some seeds and carry them in your pocket next time you feel like a good lurk. But, there’s a method that must be used or the seed won’t work. On the eve of St John (June 21), bring a pewter dish into the nearest fern patch at midnight. Hold the dish under the ferns, but be sure not to touch or jar the plants, as the seed must fall spontaneously. And take care while you’re out there – the spirits have been know to intervene, and sometimes not for good. Often, no matter how much you collected, when you got home your sacks would be empty. On the other hand, occasionally a stranger might appear and hand you a purse full of gold. Speaking of money, if you place fern seed in with your cash, it is guaranteed never to diminish. How’s that for security?!

Nicholas Culpeper tells of a fern variety, moonwort, that would cause horses, if they stepped on it, to lose their shoes. This is said to have happened to 30 of the Earl of Essex’s horses in Tiverton, England. A poet (unknown) wrote of such wonders in the following little ditty:

Horses, that feeding on the grassy hills,

Tread upon the moonwort with their hollow heels,

Though lately shod at night go barefoot home,

Their master musing where their shoes be gone.

Apparently this fern has an effect on iron nails in general, as, if it is stuffed into a keyhole, the lock opens and the hinges are loosened.

Ferns tied to the ears of horses protect them from the devil. Beware of pulling ferns up by the roots, because you may cause a storm, or even worse, lose your wits. Burning ferns can also cause terrible weather; in 1636, King Charles I’s Lord Chamberlain wrote to the Sheriff of Staffordshire that this be “forborne” until His Majesty’s party “be passed the county.”

If on May Morning a dairy girl could find a lady fern frond big enough to cover the dairy’s scalding pan, it would bring good luck for the entire year.

Finally, I am particularly fond of ferns because in they are the very first plants in the early New England spring that have grown enough to use to make a dye for wool.


4 thoughts on “Folklore in My Garden – Ferns

  1. An Glorieux says:

    I love this but ferns have spores and not seeds–they are primitive, early land plants. Of course in Shakespeare’s time that wasn’t know.

    • katknit says:

      You’re absolutely correct, An Glorieux, and I’ve seen the spores on the ferns in my yard countless times. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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