Plant Guide > Ferns > Male Buckler Fern

Male Buckler Fern



Aspidium Filix Mas
Lastrea Filix Mas
Dryopteris Filix Alas

The Male Buckler Fern is a most abundant fern, deriving its name from its robust appearance in contrast with the more delicate though similar Lady Fern, Nephrodium Filix Faemina. The stipites or stalks are densely scaly. The fronds grow in circular clumps about two or three feet in height: they spring in a circular manner from the large scaly rhizome, and, in the early part of the year, as they uncoil themselves from their ring-like condition have a very beautiful appearance.

The upper and lower pinnae are much shorter than those of the middle, which gradually taper off to the point. The fronds are from five to ten in number; their position nearly erect, or radiating from the centre.

The sori are rather large on the upper branch of the forked lateral veins, and covered by a conspicuous kidneyshaped indusium, which is attached to the vein just at the point where the stalks of the capsules are situated. It is one of the best species to study, with a view to understand the fructification of ferns, on account of the prominence of the indusium in fully-developed fronds. It is of a more permanent character than most other British ferns.

The Male Fern is found in every country of Europe and Northern Asia, and has been collected in Africa; but is not recognised as belonging to America. It delights in woody and shady districts, and may be found in almost every country ramble in England. It is most abundant in cultivated districts, and in rich soils it lives to a great age; the fronds of each succeeding year appearing to increase in size.

Were this a rare fern, it would be greatly prized, but, being common, it is less appreciated than it deserves. In olden times, however, it was the hero of the fern tribe. It is supposed to be the fern that supplied the mystic fern seed gathered so ceremoniously on St. John's Eve, and imparting the marvellous power to "walk invisible." Gathering fern seed was ever associated with witchcraft and demonology. Newman tells us that " Vagabonds " used to make " lucky hands " or " St. John's hands," out of the curled-in young fronds, and sell them as charms to put on the troughs from which cattle drank.

The medicinal properties of the Male Fern have been held in high repute for many years; it is even now retained in our Pharmacopoeias as a vermifuge, and was recommended by Theophrastus, Dioscorides, and Galen. Lately it has been extensively employed as a remedy for tapeworm, and with good effect. Tragus has a very curious passage on the subject of its curing wounds caused by reeds, and says that the antipathy of the Male Fern and the Reed is so great, that the one will not grow in company with the other.

The same author also recommends a piece of the root of the Male Fern to be laid under the tongue of a horse that may have fallen sick from any unknown cause; by which means the disease will be expelled, and the horse restored to health. Even the homoeo-pathic Pharmacopoeia recognises the use of the infusion of Male Fern roots as an agent in medicine.

Schkuhr speaks of the ashes of this fern being used in bleaching linen and in the manufacture of glass; also of an extract obtained from its roots as used for tanning leather. Parkinson also mentions it as forming an ingredient in the making of a coarse green glass in France and in England, in his time. In Norway it is employed as fodder for cattle, when dry as litter, and when decayed as manure.

It is very amusing to find among old botanical writers the curious and often absurd uses to which they assign various vegetable productions ; and while repudiating many that have been formerly received, and lamenting the ignorance and folly of past times, they themselves were perpetuating and fully believing in even greater absurdities. Thus Gerarde, who warns his readers against too ready a faith in the virtues of the Male Fern, asserts his own implicit belief in the marvellous fable of the production of the barnacle goose from the blossom of the trees, which overhang the water, being converted into sea acorns or barnacles, and then hatching into a white feathery goose.

A species of Nephrodium, growing in Russia and Tartary, and very nearly allied to the Nephrodium Filix Mas, is the Scythian or Tartarian lamb, about which so many wonderful tales have been told, that the world has doubted whether or not to credit them. Struys, who travelled through Russia and Tartary in the middle of the seventeenth century, gave one of the earliest and best accounts of this curious plant. He says "it has the shape and appearance of a lamb, with feet, head, and tail distinctly formed: its skin is covered with a white down as soft as silk.

The Tartars and Muscovites esteem it highly, and preserve it in their houses with great care. The sailor who gave me one of these precious plants, found it in a wood, and had its skin made into an under waistcoat. I learned at Astrachan that the lamb grows on a stalk about three feet high; that the part by which it is sustained is a kind of navel, and that it turns itself round and bends downwards to the herbage, which serves for its food. They also said that it dies and pines away when the grass fails.

They added, that the wolves are very fond of these vegetable lambs, and they devour them with avidity, because they resemble in taste the animal whose name they bear; and that in fact they have bones, flesh, and blood; and hence they are called zoophytes, i, e. plant-animals. Many other things I was likewise told, which might, however, appear scarcely probable to such as have not seen them."

This wonderful tale of Struys's, though of course exaggerated, is based on truth. The rhizoma of Nephrodium or Aspidium Baromez does, when the fronds are removed, somewhat resemble a lamb in appearance, and :s covered by a soft downy substance, which may be compared to a fleecy coat. Like the stems of other ferns, the inner parts are soft and pulpy, and have a sort of flesh-colour ; the sap is also of a rich red hue, resembling 'blood ; so that from these materials the inventions of the wonder-loving peasantry of Tartary formed the fable which met with ready belief from the credulous traveller, who was strongly imbued with the love of the marvellous, so common in the age in which he lived.

This fern, however, possesses astringent properties in a somewhat greater degree than other species, and was formerly in repute as a styptic. Fresh plants were often brought to the markets at Macao, but none ever reached this country alive.

Nephrodium Filix Mas has been often employed in brewing, as a substitute for hops, and has been found to be one of the most successful ingredients in beer when hops are absent.


NEPHRODIUM FILIX MAS INCISA is a larger and more striking plant than the normal form, more robust, and sometimes growing to a height of or four feet. The fronds are directly bipinnate and lanceolate, not contracting abruptly at the apex. The vernation is more distinctly and clearly developed. The pinnules are longer, narrower, and more distant; the first upper pinnule is generally much longer than the first inferior. This variety is called by many writers Lastrea erosa, or Aspidium Fillix Mas erosa.

NEPHRODIUM FILIX MAS PALEACEA (or BORRERI, as it is sometimes called), has lanceolate fronds of a yellowish kind, and bright golden scales on the rachis. It also differs from the other varieties in having purple ribs and veins, and in the sides of the indusium being inflated beneath the spore-cases. A very curious form of the Male Fern has the points of the fronds and of the pinnae divided into a fringe or tassel-a curious transformation which occurs in British species only in this and the Lady Fern.

NEPHRODIUM FILIX MAS PUMILA is permanently smaller than the original plant, seldom reaching more than a foot in height. The pinnae are short, bluntish, and pinnatifid. The sori are borne only on the lowest anterior branch of each pinnule. It is of rare occurrence, but seems to have been brought originally from Snowdon. When fresh, the young fronds have a sweet fragrant smell, something like mignionette.

NEPHRODIUM FILIX MAS ABBREVIATA is a permanently small form of the Male Fern, about a foot in height, in which the pinnules become rounded lobes, and the fructification forms a line on each side of the mid-vein of the pinnae. It is found in woods and banks iii Cumberland and Yorkshire.

When planted in the fernery, the common Male Fern; as well as all its varieties, grows well and luxuriantly; if only space enough be allowed for its roots. It does not require so much shade as many other ferns, and will bear sunshine.