Ferns in Folklore

Ferns have been around for over 300 million years, flourishing in diverse habitats all over the world.  At one time they were the dominant part of the earth’s vegetation, and today there are about 12,000 species on this planet.  Perhaps it was inevitable that any plant that old and that diversified would eventually be credited with stories of supernatural natures and infiltrate the realms of folklore.

For example there is a legend about mythical flowers or seeds of the fern in Slavic folklore.  Certain ferns are said to bloom once a year during the Ivan Kupala night, the feast of St. John the Baptist, celebrated around the time of the summer solstice.  Young girls float candle-lit wreaths on rivers in an attempt to gain foresight into their future, while the boys attempt to capture a wreath in the hope of winning the love of the girl who floated it.

An ancient Kupala belief revolves around the blooming of the fern on that night.  Anyone fortunate enough to find the fern flower will receive great prosperity, luck, power, and intelligence.  They are also said to be able to converse with the birds and will become as strong as forty men.

The holiday is still celebrated by Polish and Russian youth today.  The night before the holiday is a night for mischief where children engage in water fights and attempt to pour water over each other.  This is due to the fact that St. John baptized people by immersion in water and with the role of water in fertility and ritual purification.

In Finnish lore it is said that one who finds the seed of that fern, while in bloom on Midsummer night, will become invisible and be guided to the Will o’ the wisps which mark the site of hidden treasures beyond belief.  These treasure spots are under a spell which prevents anyone but the seed holder from knowing their location.

However, in spite of the beauty of the lore, it is a known fact among biologists that ferns never have, and never will bloom.  

Ferns have been used as a source of fibers, dyes, drugs and food.  However, as with mushrooms, the gatherer must know his ferns.  Some, such as the Bracken have been found to be mutagenic and carcinogenic in rats and mice and is a potential source of insecticide.  It also has the potential as a biofuel.  

All parts of the bracken fern are toxic to livestock and humans.  However, in the 17th century live bracken fern was highly sought during times of drought since it was believed that burning it would cause rain. They might have been very useful during the dust bowl days of the 1930’s in Oklahoma, at least according to the story.