Dryopteris filix-mas

The Virtues

Dryopteris filix-mas is perhaps unique among the plants in the 1648 collection, as not only are the uses of its roots and leaves described, but also those of its fumes.

The roots were thought to be useful for ridding the digestive system of worms both “broade and long”, with the treatment recommended to be half an ounce of roots “bruised and boyled in medde [mead] or honyed water, and drunke”, which, as a side effect, also lessened “the swelling and hardnesse of the spleene”. Roots could also be used to heal that most terrifying of wounds, “the pricking of the reed”. The basis for this is entirely logical: reeds and ferns will not grow in the same place – where one flourishes the other suffers – and so the wound caused by the reed will diminish when fern roots are applied.

The leaves were also used as a remedy for ill health. According to the apothecary John Parkinson, eating them is “sayd to open the belly and moveth it downewards, yet it troubleth the stomacke, and purgeth chollericke”. John Gerard also said of Dryopteris, “it killeth the childe in the mothers wombe”; Parkinson shared his views on this matter, but felt the need to clarify a misunderstanding that had arisen from a mistranslation from Greek to English, saying “yet is it but a fable to be any danger unto them to goe or stride over it”.

Lastly, Parkinson speaks of the use of the smoke from burning the fern, saying it “driveth away serpents, gnats, and other noisome creatures that in the Fenny Countries much molest both strangers and inhabitants that lye in bed in the night time, with their faces uncovered.” So, next time you’re in Cambridge you’ll know what to do!

Dryopteris filix-mas


The Names: developing Dryopteris

The Botanic Garden’s catalogues of 1648 and 1658 both list ferns called ‘Dryopteris’, but Dryopteris filix-mas comes from a somewhat different direction. In the 1648 catalogue the species is actually listed as ‘Filix mas’ (‘Filix mas vulgaris’ in the 1658 edition and contemporary dried specimens). In his 1753 book, Species Plantarum, Linnaeus lists ‘Filix mas non ramosa dentata’ (meaning ‘male fern that is unbranched and toothed’) and ‘Filix mas’ as previous names for the species he called Polypodium filix-mas. This name has since been revised to Dryopteris filix-mas, which remains the accepted species name.

Dryopteris filix-mas herbarium specimen


A species of special scientific interest

Useful as Dryopteris filix-mas was in medicines during the 1600s and before, these uses may not have been the only reason it was growing in the Gardens in 1648. In the seventeenth century, plant reproduction was poorly understood at best, and ferns would have been among the most confusing species of all as they lack both flowers and seeds (they use spores instead). Attempting to understand how these species propagated became something of a preoccupation of botanists at the time, and the Botanic Garden of Oxford University would have been an almost ideal place to work on solving the problem.

Drypoteris filix-mas sporagia on leaf underside