Fern ethnobotany

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Seminar Workbook

Dryopteris marginalis Marginal Wood Fern
With Sections On:



A Pteridological and Ethnobotanical Study of Our Natural Area

in the Upper Delaware River Valley

by Nathaniel Whitmore

January 2016

Rock Cap Polypodium virginianum

Here is a botanical exploration focused on the upper Delaware River valley region. Since the Lenni Lenape (Delaware) are the natives of the area, their particular uses of ferns would be the focus of such a paper if the information could be easily found. I chose to focus on the Iroquoian uses, as they were in the region and are related. Also the Cherokee uses are included as there is much information from them, and they are in the east and are related to the Lenape. Western uses are considered to some extent, but not so much and sometimes simply omitted from the main text, as this is intended to be first and foremost a look at our local wild areas. Western uses are, of course, important and noteworthy, but without knowing about variations in the nature of the ferns that can be expected with different growing conditions, I chose to mostly leave this information out except for a bit to shed light on the nature of our local species. I have included a little information on non-Native uses of local ferns for further insight, and for additional perspective I included some notes about relatives of our native ferns that are used in other parts of the world. I have also included a small section on Chinese medicine in order to explain some theory related to the medicinal use of ferns. It is my hope that this document will stimulate dialogue on the subject of local medicinal ferns, the recovery of information that is almost lost, and experimentation to move us forward toward a more wholesome relationship with our surroundings and their health-promoting properties. Please forgive my mistakes and take the time to make me aware of them. Any leads to information on the Native American use of ferns would be greatly appreciated, especially regarding the Lenni Lenape uses.


Introduction 4

Descripition of Medicinal Uses of Local Ferns by Native Americans 6


Walking Fern

Maidenhair Spleenwort

Lady Fern

Rattlesnake Fern

Fragile Fern

Hay-scented Fern

Mountain Wood Fern

Spinulose Wood Fern

Crested Wood Fern

Marginal Wood Fern

Ostrich Fern

Sensitive Fern

Cinnamon Fern

Interrupted Fern

Royal Fern

Rock Cap

Christmas Fern


Marsh Fern

Major Medicinal Categories of Ferns Used By Native Americans 16

Fern Identification

Pteridology Terms to Know 19

Keys to Ferns of Our Area 19

Key One 20

Key Two 22

Key By Size (Key Three) 24

Key By Sori (Key Four) 26

Botanical Descriptions of Native American Medicinal Ferns of Our Area 29

Local Ferns & Relatives Used in America, Europe, Asia, & Africa 32

Preparation of Medicine 36

Lenni Lenape Medicine 37

Iroquois Medicine 39

Cherokee Medicine 41

Ferns & the Energetics of Chinese Herbal Medicine 42

Homeopathic Use of Ferns 45

Bibliography 46

Index 47

Generally ferns are mildly toxic and besides a few exceptions they are not utilized much as food or medicine. My own experience with their medicinal uses is limited, but historical references clearly indicate that they were once used traditionally in medicine. This coupled with their frequency in the wild warrants some research. Several species can be consumed as food, but even so it is recommended that you do so in moderation. Those that are not bitter are the safest. A few are overtly toxic or emetic. Bracken Ferns (potentially others) can lead to beri beri if consumed regularly or in excess. And it is believed that ferns can contribute to stomach cancer. The only species that was in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia is Dryopteris filix-mas, which was listed as a vermifuge (indicating some toxicity).

Perhaps it is because of the toxicity of ferns or perhaps it is because of our loss of tradition and knowledge that ferns have fallen out of common use. As you will see in the list of species below, ferns were used by Native Americans for medicine; their uses falling into a few specific areas. Ferns address stomach concerns, intestinal parasites, rheumatism, pain, lung disorders, blood disorders, gynecological disorders (including after labor), problems with lactation, and venereal disease. The association with Venus (as with Maidenhair) fits into the feminine association made by the American Natives (an example of multi-cultural confirmation).

The use of ferns for diseases of the blood shows some similarities between Native American medicine and traditional Chinese medicine. Well-established concepts in Chinese medicine, such as blood deficiency and toxic heat in the blood, are only mentioned in passing from ethnobotanical sources about Native use, but I assume that Native American herbalists had an equally sophisticated understanding of blood disorders and how to treat them.
Ethnobotanical texts and popular “Native American herb” books tend to lack the practical details required to put ferns to use as medicine. We are left to wonder about the when and how of the emetics and fever remedies. When is Maidenhair most appropriate for rheumatism (compared to the other remedies)? How does one use Rattlesnake Fern for snakebite? What kind of back pain responds to Ostrich Fern?
Chinese medicine is more systematic and documented than Native American medicine. Dryopteris crassirhizoma is considered bitter and cool, affecting the liver and stomach channels, and is taken for parasites. Various formulas are indicated for specific uses. It is also known that one should avoid eating fatty foods while taking this herb in order to avoid absorbing the toxin. Drynaria fortunei (Gu Sui Bu) and Cibotium barometz (Gou Ji) are both classified as herbs that tonify yang. Drynaria tonifies the kidneys and mends connective tissue, while Cibotium additionally tonifies the liver and expels wind and dampness.

While Chinese medicine relies very much on books, Native knowledge has only begun to be written down. We are a bit late, considering how much knowledge is already lost, but better late than never. Herbalists today are working to preserve Native American wisdom and knowledge, before even more is lost. The majority of my own research at this time is into the Native use of native plants.

Ethnobotanical summaries leave us wanting for more than recipes and practical instruction. The dry world of “this-herb-for-that” neglects the spiritual realities of the Native. Perhaps it is such disposition that has also resisted the written word. Medicine of the Native American was and is holistic in its inclusion of spiritual realities. The practitioner was so very aware of such a world and looked for help from the spirits.
My teacher Taterbug used a shamanic trance to conjure up help in deciding what herbs to use. At the same time that shamans look to the spirits, their approach is largely intuitive. As individuals with a strong sixth sense become intimate with wild plants, they will tend to be drawn to certain plants for reasons with little obvious rational. Such practice proves difficult to explain in books.
So, the study of Native American herbal medicine proves to have many obstacles. This booklet on the use of ferns is only a minor compilation of recorded information regarding Native uses of ferns and it is a glimpse into the botany of our particular area (New York and Pennsylvania along the upper Delaware, and including New Jersey). It is my hope that this work will stimulate common people to become more interested in the natural world and its herbal medicines, that it will encourage dialogue on the subject amongst my peers, that it will help to preserve knowledge, and that it will help to refine this knowledge towards practical aim.

Maidenhair Spleenwort Asplenium tricomanes

Adiantum pedatum MAIDENHAIR
Cherokee used Maidenhair for rheumatism (the effect on contracted muscles likened to the uncurling fiddleheads)- the compound decoction or decoction of root applied with warm hands as external rub, or infusion internally. Infusion or decoction of whole plant was used as an emetic for fever and ague (fever with chills). Powdered leaves are smoked for heart trouble and snuffed or smoked for asthma. They used it for paralytic attacks, as from pneumonia in children. Sacred preparation of whole plant was used specifically for women’s irregular heartbeat. Cherokee considered Maidenshair a powerful medicine for the heart, and as such it is associated with the direction of East.
Costanoan of California used the decoction to purify the blood and for stomach troubles. Hesquiat of western Canada mixed the ashes in formula for shortness of breath, and to produce strength and endurance. They likewise used the green fronds. The northwestern Makah chewed the fronds for weak stomach. Menomini (Wild Rice People) used a compound decoction of the root for dysentery. They used the blade, stem, and root in gynecology. Fox used a compound containing the root and stem for children. Micmac, Algonquian of eastern Canada, used in decoction for fits. Potawatomi of the upper Mississippi River used an infusion of the root for caked breasts. Natives applied poultice of plant to sore back of babies. Wet fronds poulticed for snakebite. Decoction used as wash for venereal disease such as gonorrhea. Used topically by Native Americans as a poultice or wash for bleeding, insect stings, snakebites, arthritis, and for hair.
Hesquiat use of Maidenhair for endurance played out in ceremonial dancing, for which the infusion would be used, especially in winter, to prevent fatigue. Nitinaht also used Maidenhair for ceremonial dancing. Such uses along with the sacred preparation practiced by the Cherokee indicate that this beautiful fern was regarded as a sacred medicine. Additionally, the black stems of Maidenhair were used by Potawatomi as a hunting charm.
The subspecies pedatum was used by the Iroquois for children’s cramps, as decoction. A compound decoction of the green roots used as a foot soak for rheumatism and taken internally. Decoction of roots taken as a diuretic for the cessation of urine due to stones. Infusion of plant used as an emetic for love medicine. Compound decoction or infusion taken for excessive menstruation. Decoction of roots used to bring on menses and for abortion. Plant used for abortion or delivery pains.
Therefore, Maidenhair is anti-rheumatic, emetic, diaphoretic, cardiotonic, stimulant, alterative, astringent, antispasmodic, emenagogue, and antiseptic. Energetically, Maidenhair appears dry and (cool?), with an affinity for the heart and reproductive system.

Asplenium rhizophyllum WALKING FERN
Cherokee used the decoction topically and as emetic, and in compound for swollen breasts.
Asplenium tricomanes MAIDENHAIR SPLEENWORT
Cherokee used for irregular menses, breast diseases, coughs, and liver ailments.
Athyrium filis-femina LADY FERN
Iroquois used subspecies angustum for mothers with intestinal fevers, to prevent water breaking, and for men with venereal disease. Other varieties used by tribes of other areas also used for pain, cancer, sores, caked breasts, vomiting blood, and for sore eyes. Root tea used as diuretic, for breast pains caused by childbirth, and for caked breasts. Stem tea used to ease labor.
Cherokee used for women’s headaches. Although I have not uncovered details of this use, it seems likely that we are considering headaches of a hormonal nature
Used in formula with Willow and other plants for calming female anxiety.

Chippewa, or Ojibwa, used Lady Fern root in compound decoction for stopped urine; grated and dried for sores. Cowlitz of the northwest used stem infusions for pain. Hesquiat used unfurling fronds for internal ailments as with women’s womb. Makah used the decoction of pounded stems to ease labor pains. Meskwaki used the root decoction for bosom pains caused by childbirth. Potawatomi used root infusions for caked breasts and other female disorders.

It is interesting that the female association surrounding the used of this fern is found from different cultures.
Botrychium virginianum RATTLESNAKE FERN

Iroquois used subspecies virginianum as a cough medicine for tuberculosis as cold infusion of root.

The Algonquian (northeast) Abnaki used as a demulcent and for children’s medicine. Cherokee used root decoction as emetic and as concentrated syrup for external use on snakebites (including from dream snakes), and used the juice from the frond for insect bites and stings. Chippewa used a poultice of fresh root for snakebite and as a repellant. Chicksaw (southwest) used as a diaphoretic and expectorant, and the root decoction as emetic. Ojibwa used for lung trouble, such as tuberculosis; and used the poulticed root on cuts. Potawatomi also used medicinally.
Astringent property used for open wounds.
Cystopteris fragilis FRAGILE FERN
Navajo used Fragile Fern in compound infusion topically for injury. Yet another example of the Doctrine of signatures.
Considering the high variability of local species, I assume the southwest species to be of a slightly different nature than out own.

Rattlesnake Fern Botrychium virginianum Fragile Fern Cystopteris fragilis

Dennstaedtia punctilobula HAY-SCENTED FERN

Cherokee used in compound infusion for chills. Mahuna used for lung hemorrhages.

This is a common fern, forming thick patches in the forest under-story. It is a sign of an imbalanced ecosystem, as excessive growth is due to deer overbrowse. Hay-scented and New York Ferns along with invasive plants like Barberry (Berberis) and Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) can be harvested without concern for over-harvesting. Reducing their population actually benefits competing plants, which could be endangered or threatened. Doesn’t it seem, in the grand scheme of things, to make sense for us to be using such herbs as medicines? Could they be here in abundance for our benefit?
In my experience invasive plants are very useful. (Hay-scented Fern is not alien, but is a native-invasive, a native plant found in abundance because of other environmental imbalances and not because it was introduced from a foreign area). Barberry, for instance, is probably one of the most important wild medicinal herbs. While antibiotic use becomes more rampant and destructive to our health, Barberry spreads with vigor as though offering itself as a replacement of our favorite drugs. And it has been pointed out that Japanese Knotweed seems to spread like crazy in areas that struggle with high rates of Lyme disease. Could it actually be that Nature offers us the remedies that we need?
It is well worth it for the herbalist to consider why such plants grow in abundance.
By our material / mechanical worldview it does not make sense that a fern would show up in our neighborhoods in order to cure certain diseases for us. Native Americans and other indigenous people, however, lived in awe of Nature and according to different laws of cause-and-effect (energetic / spiritual). In fact, the word “medicine” generally translates to mean “mystery”. All of nature comes from the Great Mystery, the mystery of life. Who is to say, therefore, that there is not a design beyond everyday comprehension that brings forth certain plants in abundance for the sake of healing?
“Everything happens for a reason.” There must be a reason why Hay-scented Fern grows in such abundance. There also must be a reason why deer avoid it in favor of other food. Perhaps it has some toxic properties, which would relate to medicinal properties. Although the list of uses is not long, the uses listed are important. Diaphoretics (herbs for fevers) are among the most important remedies of any traditional material medica.

Dryopteris campyloptera MOUNTAIN WOOD FERN

Cherokee used with tree bark for cuts and other skin problems. Considered medicine of the South.

Inuits used leaves in compound decoction for stomachache and intestinal discomfort. Hesquiat used young shoots for cancer of the womb.
Dryopteris carthusiana SPINULOSE WOOD FERN
Nuxalk ate root as an antidote for poison from eating early summer shellfish.
Dryopteris cristata CRESTED WOOD FERN
Ojibwa used root infusion for stomach trouble.
Dryopteris marginalis MARGINAL WOOD FERN Spinulose W. F. Dryopteris carthusiana
Cherokee used infusion of root for rheumatism and toothache, and as an emetic. And in formula for rheumatism. Used as a medicine of the South, specifically for rheumatism that was exacerbated by cool, damp weather. Such use indicates a warm, dry energetic nature (at least in the formula).

Dryopteris cristata Crested Wood Fern

Matteuccia struthiopteris OSTRICH FERN
Cree (Algonquian) used a decoction of sterile leaf stalk base for expulsion of afterbirth and for back pain. Menomini used as a poultice and as an infusion for whitish urine. Ostrich Fern, therefore, seems to be parturient, analgesic, and diuretic, with an affinity to the reproductive and urinary systems. Perhaps kidney tonic, as the kidneys rule the back, reproductive system, and urinary system in Chinese medicine.
This is the well-known fiddlehead fern. As a delicious springtime food it has a both nourishing and cleansing quality.

Onoclea sensibilis SENSITIVE FERN
Iroquois used Sensitive Fern for arthritis, infection, blood disorders (blood deficiency, cold in the blood, and others), intestinal troubles, weakness (root decoction) and pain (root infusion) after childbirth, tuberculosis (decocted formula), infertility, and venereal disease. For venereal disease a compound decoction was taken; for gonorrhea a compound infusion; and men with venereal disease used the infusion of the plant and female rhizomes. Externally used for sores (cold compound infusion), deep cuts (poultice), non-flowing breasts (infusion of whole plant or roots), and venereal disease.
The root decoction was specifically used for intestinal troubles “when you catch cold and get inflated and sore”, which indicates a warming effect on the digestive system.
This fern shows an affinity to the blood. It builds, regulates, and invigorates (warms and moves) the blood. The fermented compound decoction was used by the Iroquois to “make blood”, taken before meals and bed. It was also used as a hair wash and for blood that causes the hair to fall out. In Traditional Chinese Medicine hair loss is considered to be a sign of “blood deficiency”, because the blood nourishes the hair. Perhaps the use of the root decoction for fertility and the blood is also a result of the blood building nature of Sensitive Fern. The use of the rhizome infusion for children “when blood doesn’t have a determined path” indicates blood regulation properties. Additionally it also has blood-moving properties. The decoction of root is used to start menses (which could be both for building and moving); and for swellings, cramps, and sore abdomen (presumably premenstrual and indicating blood stagnation, that requires treatment with blood moving herbs). A decocted formula that included the roots was taken for “cold in the blood”. I assume that the use of the poultice on deep cuts was for staunching the blood.
Herbs that regulate the blood, such as Tienchi Ginseng (Panax notoginseng) and Yarrow (Achillea millifolium) can be used for a wide array of blood disorders. Like Tienchi, Sensitive Fern is used for paradoxical conditions, such as blood stagnation and bleeding. It can build (nourish), regulate, move, and stop blood. It most likely has a warming property, as it is used for cold in the blood, which means that it is possibly specifically indicated for blood stagnation due to cold. By building and warming, it can create and move blood as required for the system.
Ojibwa used decoction of powdered dried root for caked breasts.

Osmunda cinnamomea CINNAMON FERN
Iroquois used externally for rheumatism (decoction) and venereal disease (compound infusion); internally the decoction was taken for headache, joint pain, colds, venereal disease, and malaise. Roots were used for women’s troubles. Used as a diaphoretic.
Supposedly, Cherokee cooked the fronds as a spring tonic. They used the decoction of roots (sometimes in compound, such as with Christmas Fern) externally for rheumatism. Compound decoction used for chills. For snakebites, the root would be chewed so that some could be swallow and the rest applied as a poultice.
Menomini used Cinnamon Fern to promote the flow of milk and for caked breasts.

Cinnamon Fern O. cinnamomea Interrupted Fern O. claytoniana Royal Fern O. regalis

Osmunda claytoniana INTERRUPTED FERN

Iroquois used Interrupted Fern in cold, compound decoction for weak blood and in compound decoction for gonorrhea.

Supposedly, the roots are used as an adulterant for Male Fern (Dryopteris felix-mas), which is used for the treatment of intestinal worms.
Osmunda regalis ROYAL FERN
Iroquois used for children with convulsions from intestinal worms, as an infusion with Wild Ginger (Asarum). Women used the decoction (small handful of fronds in 1½ cup of water down to ½ cup, to be used up in a day) for “when a woman catches cold in her kidneys and her blood gets like water”; and the decoction was for when “girls leak rotten; affected women can’t raise children”. Such use indicates an understanding of the reproductive system that parallels Traditional Chinese Medicine, by relating the kidneys and the reproductive organs.

Polyopdium virginianum ROCK CAP
Iroquois used compound decoction for cholera. Abnaki used decoction of whole plant for stomachaches. Quebec Algonquin used for heart disease. The Algonquian Malecite used infusion of pounded roots for pleurisy. Cree used decoction of leaf for tuberculosis. Nuxalk used simple or compound decoction for stomachaches and chewed roots for sore, swollen throat. Cherokee used poulitice for inflamed swellings and wounds, and infusion for hives (considered a medicine of the South). Cowichan of western Canada used rhizome for colds, stomachache, and sore throats. Cowlitz used infusion of crushed stems for measles. Green River Group used baked or raw roots for coughs. Klallam of the northwest used baked or raw roots for cough. Makah used peeled stems for coughs. Quinault used baked or raw roots for cough. Saanich used rhizomes for colds, stomach ailments, and sore throats. Skagit used for lung congestion and as a laxative.
Definitely a lung medicine. It is interesting to find so many forms of use; from whole plant, decoction, compound decoction, leaf decoction, to crushed stem infusion, peeled stems, to chewed raw roots, pounded root infusion, baked roots…
Polystichum acrostichoides CHRISTMAS FERN
Iroquois used for children’s cramps (decoction), children’s convulsions (poultice), diarrhea (compound decoction), rheumatism (foot soak), weak blood (cold compound decoction), toxic blood, red spots on children’s skin (poultice), fevers (decoction of frond with small leaves), listlessness (decoction), tuberculosis (root infusion as emetic), dyspepsia (root infusion as emetic), and venereal disease. Roots used as a “lady’s medicine” and plant taken after birth to clean the womb. The powder was inhaled and coughed up by men who could not talk. Poultice applied to back and feet of children with back troubles. Poultice of smashed roots was applied to the back and head for children’s convulsions and red spots.
Cherokee used for rheumatism, chills, fever, stomachache, bowel problems, pneumonia, and toothache. Decoction or cold infusion with Dogwood used as a wash or poultice for rheumatism. It was also combined with Cinnamon Fern for rheumatism as well as cuts.
Malecite and Micmac used roots for hoarseness.
While so many of the ferns discussed in this booklet are used for Mom, Christmas Fern seems to be more of a remedy for children. It still has use in gynecology, along with rheumatism, blood disorders, fevers, and lung disorders (as we have come to expect from the Indigenous use of ferns); but stands out as a remedy for children’s ailments.
That it finds a high percentage of its uses external, internally it is emetic, and that at least one use of the fronds specifies that small leaves should be used indicates that there is some toxicity. However, Cherokee ate the fiddleheads.

Pteridium aquilinum BRACKEN FERN
Iroquois used the decoction for diarrhea, in compound for rheumatism, for weak blood (cold, compound decoction), in compound decoction for uterine prolapse, for suffering after birth (decoction), in compound decoction for tuberculosis (during the early stages), and in compound infusion for venereal disease. The decoction was taken to make “good blood” after menses and after birth, probably a combination of blood building and blood purifying. Compound decoction taken by men to retain urine. Also used in witchcraft.
Cherokee used the root as a tonic and for nausea and vomiting, infections, and “cholera-morbus”. Bracken was also used for stomach cramps and kidney disorders. Recent Cherokee use mixed Bracken with Fennel for children’s colds and females with nursing or bladder problems (as a medicine of the East). Mixed with Balsam Fir, Horse Chestnut, and Seven Bark, Bracken was used (as a medicine of the South) for burns and sores. Combined with Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda) Bracken treated intestinal worms (medicine of the West).
Hesquiat used fiddleheads for cancer. The southwestern Koasatsi used decoction of ground roots for chest pain. Menomini used root decoction for caked breast. Micmac used fronds for weakness in babies and elderly. Montagnals of Canada used P. aquilina fronds as bedding to strengthen the backs of babies and for the elderly. Ojibwa used root infusion for stomach cramps and used smoke from dried leaves for headaches. Yana used P. aquilina roots for burns (pounded and heated).
Worn to repel black flies.

Thelypteris palustris MARSH FERN
Iroquois used as a gynecological medicine. Since plants

that grow in wet, marshy areas tend to have an affinity

with the fluid of the bodies, my guess is that Marsh Fern

as a medicinal either removes dampness or builds fluids

(nourishes yin). Certainly it can be noted that the

reproductive system is an aspect of the traditional Chinese concept of the water element (in the five element theory), or of the kidneys. However, it is possible that this reference is a confusion and that this particular Iroquoian use really belongs to Cinnamon Fern.

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