Plant Guide > Ferns > True Maiden Hair Fern

True Maiden Hair Fern



The True Maiden Hair fern is the only British species of the genus, and is easily recognised by its fan-shaped leaflets, and the little wiry black stalks which support them, so thin and hair-like as to have given rise to its specific name. It grows from nine to fifteen inches high, in circular masses, and is of a light bright green colour and very ornamental in appearance.

Its slender creeping rhizome is shaggy, with black hair-like scales, and the base of the stipes is of a rich red-brown colour. The pinnules are very irregular in shape, but mostly wedge-shaped, or tapering at the base, with rounded or egg-shaped apex; and they have generally some variation of a fan-shaped outline.

The veins in all the pinnules are two-branched or forked from the base, and extend in straight lines to the margins, where, in the barren fronds, they end in the marginal notches, but in the fertile fronds extend into the indusium, and form receptacles for the spore-cases.

The sori are very small, and chiefly seated on the under part of the lobes of the higher pinnules, which thus form a membranous indusium for the development of the clusters of fructification.

This beautiful little fern is evidently a wanderer from warmer climates, and is only very locally distributed in Great Britain. Cornwall, Devonshire, and the western and southern parts of Ireland are its chief resorts. It is found only in moist caves, or the fissures of rocks, most frequently near the sea-coast, where the water trickles over its roots, or where it is exposed to the sea spray.

It is found in abundance at Ilfracombe, and in many places on the south coast of Devonshire. Mr. Henry Newman, in a letter, describes his discovery of this shade-loving beauty, in its retreat in Wales, growing out of a rock encrusted with a soft deposit of carbonate of lime left by a trickling stream and looking very much like cream cheese. The spot is very near the lodge gate of the Dunraven estate.

There are three varieties of this fern, so distinct as to be considered as species by some writers. The first is a stronger, coarser, more robust plant than the others, with thicker stalks and larger fronds ; the stipes has also a peculiar purple bloom. The second is the true normal form, our present species, the Adiantum Capillus Veneris of Linnaeus. The third is a looser, less compact variety, with the stalks of the pinnules set on at acute angles, and the pinnules more deeply divided. It is not so common as the other forms.

From the earliest times the fronds of this fern have had a reputation as a remedy in pulmonary diseases, on account of the mucilage they contain. John Ray cites the Maiden Hair as a cure for innumerable maladies when used in decoction, by pouring boiling water on the fronds. Like other ferns, it is slightly astringent, and imparts a bitter taste to the water,. and has also a smooth mucilaginous property, which may account for its supposed virtues. As in the case of many other vaunted remedies, faith and belief in its power doubtless made up for all its real deficiencies as a curative agent.

The Canadian species of Maiden Hair was introduced into this country by John Tradescant, and it grows in such profusion in its native district, that it is frequently used as a package for goods. The French chemists use this species extensively in the manufacture of capillaire, a sweet syrup, which is sold very largely both in Paris and London. The true Maiden Hair is employed chiefly in England for this purpose, and is a safer plant than the Canadian one, which acts as an emetic when taken in any quantity. Dr. Ball, of Dublin, says that the inhabitants of Arran, where the Maiden Hair grows plentifully, employ it as a substitute for tea.

The Maiden Hair is a beautiful fern in cultivation; it grows freely in a green-house, without any artificial heat beyond what is afforded by the protection of glass. It should never be exposed to the direct rays of the sun. In Wardian cases it is eminently successful, if its natural requirements be attended to, and under favourable circumstances, no fern can rival it in delicacy and brilliancy of foliage. Dr. Ball pointed out to Mr. Newman a curious property possessed by this fern when growing in a Ward's case, without communication with the external air. The sori under these conditions will vegetate in situ, and the young plants take root like parasites in the substance of the old one.

The soil in which the Maiden Hair is best grown is a mixture of loam, leaf-mould, and silver sand, mixed with small pieces of sandstone or freestone. Mr. Johnson directs that the pots in which it is placed should be plunged in shallow pans of water, and the decayed fronds removed from time to time. It looks very pretty in a hanging basket or cocoa-nut shell, or growing between two large shells of the Pecten kind, filled with soil and moss, and suspended by wire, in the inside of a conservatory or Ward's case. The fronds resist water, or are so smooth that it always runs from them; so that Pliny says, "In vain you plunge it in water, you cannot wet it." This peculiarity appears to have suggested its name from adiantos, dry.