Ferns / Varens

Ferns are herbs, with a perennial (rarely annual) short, tufted or creeping root-stock. The British genera comprise about forty-five species, only one of which, a small Jersey species, is annual.The leaves of Ferns are mostly radical, partaking of the nature of branches and distinguished by the name of fronds. When divided laterally (as is generally the case) the leaflets are termed pinnae, and their subdivisions pinnules.

The classification of the order Filices is according to fructification. The dust-like and almost invisible seeds or spores of Ferns are contained in little cases or thecae, of a roundish shape, which are themselves encircled (except in some groups) by a jointed ring, the elasticity of which eventually bursts open the thecae and scatters the spores when mature. These thecae are in the majority of the genera arranged on the back of the pinnules in linear, oblong or circular clusters, called sori mostly having above the mass a thin membrane called the Indusium, though in some genera the sori are naked. In some instances, as in the Maidenhairs, the sori are arranged on the margins of the fronds, the indusium being a continuation of the bleached, recurved margin of the pinnule itself. In a few genera, as in the Osmunda and Adder's Tongue, the plant is divided into barren and fertile fronds, either of a distinctly different or of the same form, the fructification rising at the top of the fertile fronds in spikes or panicles. The spores when sown develop minute green leafy expansions, called Prothalli. On each prothallus are produced tiny bodies which have been compared to stamens and pistils, from whence the young Fern is subsequently developed.

As regards culture, Ferns prefer a northern aspect, shade and shelter is not indispensable, but tends to their finer and most perfect condition and growth. They flourish best in asoil that is a mixture of peat, earth and sand, pebbles being intermixed for the roots in many instances to cling to. The only manure needed is that from dried leaves or other vegetable matter. They should not be set too deep and are best kept rather moist. In all the wall species, the roots are best placed under the protection of the stones among which they are to grow. Attention should be paid in cultivation to the natural habits of the species. Ferns may be raised from the spores if carefully potted and looked after.


Botanical: Dryopteris Felix-mas (LINN.), Aspidium Filix-mas (SCHWARZ)

Family: N.O. Filices

---Part Used---Root.

The common Male Fern, often known as Dryopteris Filix-mas (Linn.), and assigned by other botanists to the genera Lastrea, Nephrodium and Polypodium, is one of the commonest and hardiest of British Ferns and, after the Bracken, the species most frequently met with, growing luxuriantly in woods and shady situations, and along moist banks and hedgerows. In sheltered spots it will sometimes remain green all the winter.

This Fern grows in all parts of Europe, temperate Asia, North India, North and South Africa, the temperate parts of the United States and the Andes of South America. It is very variable, some of its forms in this country markedly differing and described under the names of sub-species, the chief being affine, Borreri, pumilum, abbreviatum, and elongatum.

---Description---The root-stock or rhizome is short, stumpy and creeping, lying along the surface of the ground or just below it. From its under surface spring the slender, matted roots. The crown of the rhizome is a brown, tangled mass, with the hairy bases of the leaves, and in it is contained the mass of undeveloped fronds which, as they unroll, grow in a large circular tuft and attain a length of from 2 to 4 feet. Each frond is wide and spreading, stiff, erect, broadly lanceolate or lance-shaped, the stalk covered with brown scaly hairs. The pinnae are arranged alternately on the mid-rib (which is also hairy), the lower ones decreasing in size, and each pinna divided again almost to its own mid-rib, the pinnules being oblong and rounded, with their edges slightly notched and their surface somewhat furrowed. The sori are on the upper half of the frond, at the back of the pinnules, in round masses towards the base of the segments, covered with a conspicuous, kidney-shaped indusium.

The name of this genus, Aspidium, is derived from aspis (a shield), because the spores are thus enclosed in bosses, resembling the shape of the round shields of ancient days.

---Parts Used Medicinally---An oil is extracted from the rhizome of this Fern, which, as far back as the times of Theophrastus and Dioscorides, was known as a valuable vermifuge, and its use has in modern times been widely revived.

Gerard writes:

'The roots of the Male Fern, being taken in the weight of half an ounce, driveth forth long flat worms, as Dioscorides writeth, being drunke in mede or honied water, and more effectually if it be given with two scruples, or two third parts of a dram of scammonie, or of black hellebore: they that will use it, must first eat garlicke.'

The famous remedy of Madame Nouffer, for expelling tapeworms, contained this plant as its basis.

Comparatively little Male Fern has so far been collected in this country, Germany until the War having supplied nearly all our requirements.

It may be collected in late autumn, winter or early spring, from the time the fronds die down, till February, late autumn being considered the best time. Only old rhizomes should be taken.

The rhizome varies in length and thickness according to its age. For medicinal purposes it should be from 3 to 6 inches or more long and from 1 1/2 to 2 inches or more broad. When removed from the ground, it is cylindrical and covered with the closelyarranged, overlapping remains of the leafstalks of the decayed fronds. These stalks are from I to 2 inches long, somewhat curved, angular, brown-coloured, and surrounded at the base with thin, silky scales, of a light brown colour. From between these remains of the leaf stalks, the black, wiry, branched roots may be seen. Internally in the fresh state, the rhizome is fleshy and of a light yellowish-green colour. It has very little odour, but a sweetish, astringent and subsequently nauseous and bitter taste.

Before drying, it is divested of its scales, roots and all dead portions, leaving the lower swollen portion attached to the rhizome, and is carefully cleansed from adhering soil. It is then sliced in half longitudinally. For pharmaceutical use, it is reduced to a coarse powder and at once exhausted with ether. Extract obtained in this way is more efficacious than that which has been obtained from rhizome that has been kept for some time. It should never be more than a year old.

There is also a market for Male Fern Fingers which are the bases of the fronds, collected in late summer, scraped when fresh (not peeled), cut up into pieces 2 to 3 inches long and then dried, when they present a wrinkled appearance externally and internally and should have the colour of pistachio nuts.

---Substitutes---English oil of Male Fern has always proved more reliable than that imported from the Continent, which is often extracted from an admixture of other species. The rhizomes of Asplenium Filix-foemina (Bernh.), Aspidium Oreopteris (Sw.), and A. spinulosum (Sw.), resemble those of the Male Fern and have often been found mixed with it when imported. They are best distinguished by examining the transverse section of their leaf bases with a magnifying lens: in Filix-mas, the section exhibits eight wood bundles, forming an irregular circle, whilst in the three other ferns named only two are observed. The presence of secreting cells in the hard tissue, the number of bundles at the base of the leaf-stalk, and the absence of glandular hairs from the margin of the scales, readily distinguish Male Fern from the other species. The margin of the scales borne by the leaf-stalk has in the Male Fern merely hair-like projections, whereas in A. spinulosum, the hairs are glandular. Felixfoemina has no glandular hairs, and has only two large bundles in the base of the leafstalk in distinction to the eight of Filix-mas. The United States Pharmacopoeia includes the rhizome of a Canadian species, A. marginale, which in transverse section shows only six wood bundles.

This fern appears to have some qualities in common with the Bracken. The ashes of both have been used in soap and glassmaking, and the young curled fronds have been boiled and eaten like Asparagus. In times of great scarcity the Norwegians (over a century ago) used the fronds to mix with bread and also made them into beer. The leaves, cut green and dried, make an excellent bitter, and when infused in hot water make good fodder for sheep and goats.

The Scottish roots of Male Fern (according to an account published in the Chemist and Druggist of February 26, 1921) yield an oleoresin which contains 30 per cent of filicin, whereas the British Pharmacopoeia only requires 20 per cent.

---Constituents---By extraction with ether, Male Fern yields a dark green, oily liquid extract, Oil of Male Fern, containing the more important constituents of the drug. The chief constituents are about 5 per cent of Filmaron - an amorphous acid, and from 5 to 8 per cent of Filicic acid, which is also amorphous and tends to degenerate into its inactive crystalline anhydride, Filicin. The Filicic acid is regarded as the chief, though not the only active principle. Tannin, resin, colouring matter and sugar are also present in the rhizome. The drug has a disagreeable, bitter taste and an unpleasant odour

---Medicinal Action and Uses---The liquid extract is one of the best anthelmintics against tapeworm, which it kills and expels. It is usual to administer this worm medicine last thing at night, after several hours of fasting, and to give a purgative, such as castor oil, first thing in the morning. A single sufficient dose will often cure at once. The powder, or the fluid extract, may be taken, but the ethereal extract, or oleoresin, if given in pill form, is the more pleasant way of taking it.

The drug is much employed for similar purposes by veterinary practitioners. In the powdered form, the dose varies from 60 to 180 grains, taken in honey or syrup, or infused in half a teacupful of boiling water. The dose often given is too small, and failure is then due to the smallness of the dose. In too large doses, however, it is an irritant poison, causing muscular weakness and coma, and has been proved particularly injurious to the eyesight, even causing blindness.

The older herbalists considered that 'the roots, bruised and boiled in oil or lard, made a good ointment for healing wounds, and that the powdered roots cured rickets in children.'

---Preparations and Dosages---Powdered root, 1 to 4 drachms. Fluid extract, 1 to 4 drachms. Oleoresin, 5 to 20 drops. Ethereal extract, B.P., 45 to 90 drops.