A pretty little fern owing its name to curative properties

By Jim Hurley - Nature Trail

Published 19/11/2016 | 00:00

Maidenhair Spleenwort is a perennial plant and is evergreen so it can be enjoyed at this time of year.
Maidenhair Spleenwort is a perennial plant and is evergreen so it can be enjoyed at this time of year.

Maidenhair Spleenwort is a pretty little fern that is very common and widespread. It grows well in areas rich in lime but is by no means confined to regions with limestone rock; it has spread far and wide throughout the countryside growing on lime mortar on old stone walls.

It is not confined to lime and it ranges from sea level to mountain tops. It has been recorded growing at an altitude of 870m in the Macgillycuddy's Reeks, that very impressive sandstone mountain range on the Iveragh Peninsula in south Kerry.

Old walls in towns, bridges and old gate piers all support dense tufts of this pretty little native fern. Its fronds are darkish green in colour and are composed of oval leaflets arranged in pairs that decrease in size towards the tip of each frond.

Maidenhair Spleenwort is a perennial plant and is evergreen so it can be enjoyed at this time of year when many flowering plants are no longer in bloom. It is an attractive plant and since it grows very widely on old walls in towns it is a species that many people must know well.

Seeing that it is a fern rather than a flowering plant it propagates itself be means of spores rather than by seed. The spores are contained in structures on the backs of the oval leaflets and it is the shape of these elongated, spore-bearing structures that gave the spleenwort family its common name.

Herbalists of old named many of our wild plants. Since they used plants as the source of their medicinal cures they had a need to refer to them by name. 'Wort', meaning herb, became a popular part of plant names.

The Doctrine of Signatures was a belief of early herbalists that held that plants are marked with signs, clues or signatures as to their curative properties. One of these signs lay in resemblances between parts of plants and parts of the human body. The theory was that if a part of a plant looked like a part of the body then that was a sign that that particular plant could be used to cure ailments of that particular part of the body.

And since people saw a resemblance between the human spleen and the elongated, spore-bearing structures on the backs of the leaflets of the attractive little fern, the plant became known as the spleen-wort, the herb used to treat conditions associated with the spleen and blood disorders

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