In Quest of Fern Seed

Author and naturalist, DONALD CULROSS PEATTIE has had the pleasure of collaborating with his son Noel in the preparation of a new volume, A Cup of Sky, to be published by Houghton Mifflin. Mr. Peattie’s share of the booh is exemplified by this deft and observant paper; Noel, still in high school, is a self-taught student of astronomy and he contributes, among other chapters, a cycle of papers on the phases of the moon.


FULL moon, on the night of May 10, 1941, guided the Luftwaffe to civilization’s greatest target for destruction. On that night and the following, the German air fleet tried to burn and blast out I lie heart of London. The historic Temple was almost totally destroyed; the House of Commons, Westminster Abbey, the British Museum, the Fleet Street, churches, the Mint, the Mansion House, and the Tower were either demolished or gravely damaged.

A few months later Londoners had piled the wreckage neatly and left the deep wounds clean, awaiting the day of peace and reconstruction. But in the meantime a strange flora rose in the bomb craters and the cellar holes seared by fire. Some of it was foreign weeds, such as a little plant whose Latin name of Calinsoga the Londoners changed to “gallant soldier.”Others were quaint pastoral plants which you will find in Milton and Shakespeare. But most mysterious of all was the swift springing of the hart’s-tongue fern wherever ground or wall had been blackened by fire.

In America the hart’s-tongue fern is something so rare — growing in one county in New York State, one in Tennessee—that many who would learn their ferns must travel far to see it in nature. Its simple, strap-shaped leaves uncoiling in springtime rear up like some ancient serpentine creature; the wavy-margined fronds at the bottom of the pool of green forest light have a seaweed look, and the whole plant, in its setting of limestone rock and spray from a cascade, breathes tranquillity and reserve. The American hart’s-tongue is shy as the last of a vanishing race.

But life is seldom through with her children, even the ferns, now reduced to the smallest of all the subkingdoms in the plant world. To the hart’stongue she has given the gift of fertility, which is all but immortality. On every leaf, on the underside, there are about eighty slender, oblique clusters of fertile capsules. About six thousand fruitful capsules fdl each cluster, and in each of these crowd fifty tiny spores, light as pollen and viable as seeds. If each fern had only five leaves — and most have many more — then a single plant would produce one hundred and twenty million spores. And these have, it seems, the witchlike quality of sprouting best in burned ground, so that, blown from the English countryside, they came to cover with woodland green the broken stones of London.

I first knew the hart’s-tongue fern in a rocky dell in southern France between the old walled village of St. Paul and the hamlet of La Gaude, a spot haunted by dreadful memories of the plague and by the pride and fall of the Templars, whose castle keep still stands near-by. I suppose that on that bank where the hart’s-tongue grew among a drift of pale yellow primroses, under the shade of classic laurel and ilex, every good and bad thing one can imagine might well have happened. For that is always the way in such ancient ground; since the days of the Cro-Magnon man at least, perhaps ten thousand years ago, the hills above the Riviera have been continuously occupied, and sun-worshipers, stoneworshipers, oak-worshiping folk, have left their touch or sign on the place. And wherever there is worship, we are likely to find its dark side, fear; wherever a god walks, there goes a shadowing devil.

This I learned when I started out, in those Provençal years, to master all the ferns of the region. That was a simple task; there was only a handful of them — maidenhair and rusty-back, spleenwort and goldilocks, male fern and lady fern, and bracken, or brake — twenty kinds, as I remember. It was not too hard to learn their names in English, Latin, French, and Provenç’l. But I seemed never to get to the bottom of all that men had believed and hoped and even feared about these ancient plant spirits. For ferns, which to a modern American are simply a choice and aristocratic component of a wood or a garden or even a drawing room, in Europe are the most hagridden thing still living.

For explanation I can only suggest — I do not know—that because ferns are what the botanist calls cryptogams (plants whose mode of reproduction was obscure before the days of the microscope) they earned the reputation of being unnatural. The simplest peasant could see that they had no flowers, neither did they bring forth fruit. Yet they increased — he guessed by some compact with dark powers. Fields that had been farmed in his grandfather’s day—before the old wars — were taken over now by the bracken. Yet it had no seeds. When he turned the cattle in to browse it, they ate everything else but avoided it like poison (which in its mature stages it is). When he cut it with a scythe, he saw in the cut stem a pattern of the bundles of libers that looked to some like an eagle with spread wings, to others like an oak. Some read in it the initials “J C.” Was this profanity in the fern, or a seal upon it?

It was said, yea and by many believed, that the moonwort fern would open the locks of houses and of fetters and unshoe those horses that trod upon it. Thus did “the Earl of Essex, his horses, being drawne up in a body upon White Down in Devonshire,” lose all their shoes. Gerard, the greatest of the English herbalists, called this fern martagon, and tells that the country people of his day believed that to sleep upon it would bring dreams and delusions.


NO ONE knows why the ancients picked on two kinds of fern and called one male fern and one female fern, for of course they are not two sexes of the same species; but the choice was made so long ago that it was already old when Aristotle wrote his lost book on plants. To tell of all the “lovend and scurrilous matters” connected with the male fern is something that even the herbalists shied from. Genghis Khan carried seed of male fern in his ring, and by it understood the speech of birds. To carry the seed in your pocket rendered you invisible. A character in one of Ben Jonson’s plays explains: —

I had no medicine, sir, to walk invisible;
No fern-seed in my pocket.

We smile indulgently at this poetic fantasy, but the fern has a sly last word. From the time of Dioscorides, and long before, it had been believed that male fern taken internally was a vermifuge. A notorious quack sold a secret medicine to Louis XIV for fifteen thousand louis; upon analysis it turned out to be nothing but male fern. Actually that is still today the finest vermifuge.

The medieval and classic Europeans meant by female fern what now we call the bracken, the lustiest fern of the temperate zone. And about it grew up the strangest practices of all. Their origin comes down from the time when our ancestors were dwellers in a primeval forest, somewhere in northern or eastern Europe. They worshiped the sun and the oak, and their greatest festival was at the summer solstice, the longest day and the shortest night of the year. Even that brief night was, in honor of the sun god, illuminated with bonfires of oak wood. This custom they brought with them, as they moved into southern and western Europe; it was already thousands of years old when Christianity began to struggle with the widespread power of pantheism. Over the festival of the summer solstice it won but a nominal victory; it gave it a name, St. John’s Day, but it could not exorcise all the elves and witches that capered in men’s hearts upon that mysterious eve.

And none was so cherished, of all the practices of Midsummer’s Eve, as the gathering of seed from the female fern. For on that night it bears a bloodred flower which is no sooner opened than its petals fall and are swallowed by the earth. But if you will spread a snow-white cloth beneath the fern at midnight, before the petals fall, you will catch too the magical deciduous seed. Get that seed but once in your possession, and the ground where you walk will become transparent. Thus you can find where rich men have buried their treasure.

Here were dark matters! The Council of Ferrara, in its session of 1612, consulted anxiously and then decreed a prohibition against the gathering of fern seed on that particular pregnant night: “Prohibemus ac vetamus ne quis ca node, quae diem S. Johannis Baptistae nativitatis sacrum praeit, filices, filicumre semina colligat.”

You and I know that ferns have no seeds at all, but the good fathers of Ferrara were relying upon a botanical opinion even then outmoded: —

Although that all they that have written of herbes have affyrmed and holden that the brake hath nether sede nor frute, yet have I dyvers tymes proved the contrarrye. . . . I have foure yeares together, one after another, on the vigill of Saynte John the Baptiste . . . soughte for this sede of brakes upon the nyghte and indeed found it earlye in the mornynge before the daye brake. The sede is small, black and like unto poppye. . . . I gathered it after this manner. I laid shetes and mollen leaves underneathe the brakes which receyved the sede that was by shakyng and beatynge broughte out of the branches and leaves. . . . I went about this business, all figures, conjurings, saunter’s charms, wychcraft and sorceryes set aside, takyng wyth me two or three honest men to bere me companye.

Most patently this antique herbalist had seen and gathered something real — something that he might have obtained on many another eve as well.

To a genius of whose life almost nothing is known must go the credit for first distinguishing between the seeds of flowering plants and the seedlike spores of ferns. Dr. Valerius Cord us (1515-1544) of Wittenberg in High Germany, where Hamlet studied and Dr, Faustus made his monstrous compact, realized that the “dust,” as he called it, which grows upon “backs of ferns” was no true seed, since it lias no nutrient store of food and no embryonic plantlet. Yet it is life-giving.

It took two centuries of work to unravel the life history of a fern. For ferns have an alternation of generations, such as is familiarly understood in the case of caterpillar and butterfly. But ferns are more devious in their generations than this. The fern plant as we know it commonly is the sexless stage, for the spores it bears are neither male nor female. The sexual generation, which is produced when a spore falls to the ground and sprouts, is sometimes not as large as the nail of your little finger, and passes — when it is seen at all — for a first tiny shoot of moss or a little liverwort lying flat on the ground. Again, it may be colorless and subterranean, like some tiny tuber. On the upper surface of this sexual stage are borne the reproductive parts, the egg cells passive in a littlle open receptacle, the male cells fitted, like polliwogs, with tails for swimming. What they swim in must be rain water or even a film of dew; from the union springs again the airy arc of a fern plant.

This sexual stage would appear to be the weak link in the life history of a fern weak in structure, weak in dependence on conditions. But it has held through unimaginable ages. Ferns with their fern allies were perhaps the first plants on land, and still today when you see a horsetail fern growing where the terra is not quite firm a you arc gazing upon a. form of stem and node and leaf and a mode of reproduction — spores born in a conelike head — that is three hundred million years old. The ancestor of that plant, Catamites, was a giant in the great Age of Ferns, when through monotonous millennia the spores of those vanished forests drifted through the primordial damps to lay down the deep seams of our coal.

If ancient and distinguished lineage characterizes aristocrats, then the ferns are the most aristocratic plants that grow. They have other highborn traits. They disdain all gaudy display; they go in for refinement of detail; they are withdrawn in habit, and rather than live in an unbeautiful place, it seems, they would die. Nothing less than a green forest mansion will suffice the stately sword fern, the broad shield fern, the evergreen Christmas fern, the rattlesnake fern that, our Southern mountaineers call “sang-sign” — sure sign, they mean (or hope), of the presence of “sang” or ginseng that they dig to be sold in the herb shops of far-off Cathay. The golden polypody crowns the tops of dry but shaded, lichen-covered boulders. The maidenhair loves dripping limestone cliffs. The filmy fern grows only where it is forever wetted by the spray of a waterfall or the bubbling lip of a spring. And some, like the Cretan brake and Cyrtomium, the holly fern, which come from olden lands, will grow in America only on what little here is old — the walls of Fort Marion in St. Augustine, the mossy cemeteries of New Orleans.

So one by one you come to know them, first by their folk names of ebony fern and rue-of-the-wall, quillwort and baby fern, cinnamon fern and catwhistles, and then, as you discriminate, by their scientific titles. Moomvort easily becomes lunaria, spleewort Asplenium, royal fern regalis. Many a fern’s classic name sounds like a dryad’s; Dryopteris, Thelypteris, Lastraea, Pellaea — they have a charm and chime that you yield to at last.

And many kinds will soon proclaim to you their identity as far as you can see them, above all by their way of carrying themselves, or, as with your human friends, by their oddities and foibles. The walking fern, for instance, has a little tongue-shaped blade whose overarching point, stabbing the forest loam, strikes root and sends up from it a new shoot, to go marching on, even as the old one fails, till, it may be, the elvish plant tiptoes silently away from the haunts where you knew it. The hay-scented fern is known by its sweet reek of silage, the ebony fern by its shining black stems, the rare climbing fern by its resemblance to smilax, while the adder’stongue scarcely seems a fern at all but looks like some little jack-in-the-pulpit or other aroid. The flowering fern does not really flower, but so ample and fertile, so colorful and unleaflike, are its sporebearing spikes that it looks, as its clusters rise above the broad green vegetative fronds, like a stalk in bud, a shoot that might flower, if some new miraculous kind of spring would dawn.

And that is what, ultimately, happened among the ancient ferns in the course of geologic ages. They and their allies, after millions of flowerless years, reached a stage of development where their spores were of two sorts, the small ones giving rise to an alternate generation which bore only male cells, while the big ones gave rise to plant lets bearing female or egg cells. At this point a botanist would be hard put to it to say why the small spores were not pollen, as pollen is strictly defined. More, the sex generation, instead of existing as a separate plant, began to linger on the fern leaves, just as in flowering plants. Thus ferns developed seeds — true seeds, the result of fertilization of the egg cell by the male. So that, after all, there is, or there was once upon a Carboniferous time, such a thing as fern seed!

These seed ferns are the very species which, charred or drowned so long ago, became the bituminous and anthracite coal of today, and gave us murky skies and roaring cities. Better still, they gave us, by several evolutionary lines, the pines and cycads, at last even the queenly orchid and, not less, the homely, indomitable “gallant soldier” that, with hart’s-tongue fern, sprang up in the shell holes of London.