Lady Fern (Asplenium felix-femina)
In Shakespeare’s Henry IV pt 1, one of the characters says “We have the receipt of fern-seed, we walk invisible”. We may not, in context, be meant to take this seriously as the response from his listener is that they are “more beholden to the night” for their invisibility. So it is not clear whether or not Shakespeare realised that ferns do not have seeds but spores, a much older method of plant reproduction. Being well-versed in plant lore, Shakespeare clearly did know that fern ‘seed’ was hard to spot. It was believed that only at Midsummer could it be gathered to confer invisibility. If we allow a looseness of usage between ‘seed’ and ‘spore’ (consider “the crow flies to the rooky wood” in Macbeth) why would it be ferns, in particular, that could make someone invisible?
Is it their very liminality, not being flowering plants but belonging to a much more ancient remnant of the green world? If so, the lack of precision in the nomenclature in the scientific sense is compensated for in the recognition of their nature in the logical half-step that gets you into a faërie ring. If Bracken growing in swathes on a hillside is prominent enough and Lady Fern in a woodland glade more suggestive of enchantment, there are many other species that do not obviously reveal themselves as ferns at all. You could, for instance, walk past Adder’s Tongue Fern in a tract of open ground, growing among grasses and flowers and not see it at all. This fern, certainly, is good at making itself invisible.
And its cousin the Moonwort might be passed by on an open heath or on downland without being seen nestling in a hollow or inconspicuous by the side of a winding path. Alchemically it was supposed to be an agent in converting mercury to silver. There is much lore about faërie people not tolerating iron and that quality is also ascribed to this fern. It was said that it could open locks. It was also said that a horse stepping on it would lose its shoe : ‘Shoeless Horse’ and ‘Unshoo the Horse’ are recorded as local names for the fern. Culpepper in his Herball (1652) relates the story of thirty of the Earl of Essex’s horses being unshoed because of Moonwort and Du Bartas, in his Divine Weekes (1598) refers also to the unshoeing of horses and adds:
O Moonwort! tell us where thou hids’t the smith,
Hammer and pincers, though unshod’st them with?
(trans Joshua Sylvester (1604)
Lore apart, to see one of these is a special experience.Transformative.It is faërie silver.
Adders Tongue Fern ( Ophioglossum vulgatum)
Moonwort (Botrychium lunaria)