The frond of the Moonwort fern rises early in the spring, and in its early stage would scarcely suggest the idea of a fern. An upright simple stem is the first appearance presented, which is, in fact, a bud inclosing the frond, or rather the two fronds, a fertile and a barren one, clasping each other. The stem is separated into two branches, one of which is spreading, leafy, and lance-shaped. The pinnae are obliquely fan-shaped or lunate segments, of a thick consistence, and entire or crenate.
The fruitful branch of the stem is pinnate; the pinnae generally corresponding in number to those of the leafy branch on which distinct globular capsules are borne, which, when mature, open and allow the seeds to escape. Occasionally, but very rarely, two fertile branches are produced, and there is a variety in which the pinnae are pinnatifid.
On dry open moors, among harebells and heather, this fern is not uncommon throughout the United Kingdom, but from its diminutive size it often escapes observation. In England it is chiefly found in the counties of Staffordshire, Surrey and Yorkshire, and also in the Isle of Wight. The curious crescent-shaped pinnae of this fern, from which it derives its name Moonwort, doubtless induced the older botanists and alchemists to believe in its wondrous potency. From what we can gather about these ancient superstitions, the plants were to be gathered by the light of the full moon, or all their powers were lost. It was supposed that this plant possessed the power of opening locks, loosening fetters, bars, and the shoes from off horses' feet. Withers says, writing in 1622:
"There is an herb, some say, whose virtue's such, It in the pasture, only with a touch, Unshoes the new-shod steed."
There is a tale told, that the Earl of Essex and his followers being drawn up in a body upon White Down, in Devonshire, near Tiverton, the shoes of their horses fell off, and it was discovered that Moonwort was growing on the heath. To us this story seems very like that told of Tenterden Steeple and the Goodwin Sands.
Our old friend Gerarde makes mention of the use of this fern by alchemists, and as a remedy for "green and fresh wounds." A large and succulent species of Moonwort is boiled and eaten in the southern states of America.
Of all ferns this is one of the most easy to cultivate, never refusing to grow freely if properly treated. It requires a good depth of soil in the fernery, and must not be kept too damp. Mr. Newman regards the plant as an underground parasite. The best plan to secure success is to transplant the roots with a portion of the sail in which they are growing, or to remove the sod for some distance round the plant, so as not to disturb it.