Male Fern

(Dryopteris filix-mas) After bracken, this is the best-known fern inBritain, widespread and common in woods and hedgerows. The Lucky Hand, or St John's Hand (so called because it had to be prepared on St John's, or Midsummer, Eve), is made from the root of Male Fern, to protect a house from fire. When it was dug up, all but five of the unrolled fronds were cut away, so that what remained looked like a gnarled hand with hooked fingers. It was then smoked and hardened in one of the Midsummer bonfires, and then hidden away in some corner of the house. As long as it stayed there, the house would be safe from fire and a good many other perils (Hole. 1977). The young fronds, too, were reckoned to be a protection against sorcery (Gordon. 1985).

The root had other, more genuine, uses, for it served as a vermifuge. In the 19th century, oil of fern, made from this plant, could be bought to do the job (C P Johnson). The root was apparently marketed in the 18th century by a Madame Noufleen "as a secret nostrum", for the cure of tapeworm. After he had paid a lot of money to buy it, Louis XV and his physicians discovered that it had been used ever since Galen's time (Paris). But, though used quite a lot in folk medicine, the roots are poisonous, and can even be fatal (Tampion). Perhaps that is why the dried leaves are used in Ireland for the purpose (Maloney). Although the root is occasionally used in tincture in homeopathic medicine, to treat septic wounds, ulcers and varicose veins, the chief use these days is in veterinary practice, for expelling tapeworms (Wickham).

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