Herb to Know: Maidenhair Fern

| December/January 2000

Genus: Adiantum pedatum
Pronunciation: (Add-ee-ANN-tum puh-DAY-tum)
Family: Adiantaceae

• Deciduous fern to two feet tall with graceful, fanlike fronds
• Hardy in Zones 3 to 8
• Once used as medicine
• Outstanding in the wooded landscape

Native Americans and others used this handsome foliage plant to treat a wide variety of ills, but maidenhair fern intrigues gardeners primarily because of its unusual architecture, which is stunning in a woodland garden setting.

The genus Adiantum comprises more than 200 species of deciduous, semievergreen, or evergreen ferns native to tropical America, to north temperate areas in both hemispheres, and to Australia. Maidenhair fern (A. pedatum) grows in rich, moist woods in Japan, the Pacific Northwest, and much of eastern North America.

Maidenhair ferns grow in a way that is utterly different from that of any other herb you may have in your garden. Each spring, clusters of tightly coiled maidenhair fiddleheads (also called crosiers) arise from creeping underground stems (rhizomes) growing just below the soil surface. Gradually, the glossy black stems (stipes) uncoil to reveal wiry, spreading branches (rachises) that bear five to seven groups of leaf segments. These segments (pinnae) are in turn divided into alternate, heavily veined pinnules. The pinnae are held nearly parallel to the ground in an open ring.

The generic name, Adiantum, Greek for “unwetted,” refers to the fronds’ water repellency. The specific name, pedatum, is Latin for “like a (bird’s) foot” and refers to the splayed pinnae. The common name, maidenhair fern, appears to be an inexact translation of capillus-veneris, (literally, “Venus’s hair”), the epithet of a different species found in subtropical regions of both the Old and New Worlds. (Venus’s hair is a good choice for gardeners whose climate is too warm to grow A. pedatum.)

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