Saturday, November 17, 2012

The fern with the maiden's hair

Species name: Adiantum aleuticum

Common name: western maidenhair fern

Location: Ontario

Unlike many ferns popular to grow in North America, this one is actually native to most of Canada and Alaska. It is incredibly cold-hardy as far as ferns go, surviving much colder temperatures than any of its ferny relatives. There is another species, A. pedatum (the five-fingered fern), that is also native to North America that is equally cold hardy and was once thought to be part of the same species (they were shown to be different species through DNA sequencing in 1991). It has slightly different fronds that are darker green than this species, and is a bit shorter when full-grown. Both species are deciduous, meaning the fronds are shed during the winter, but a few of their relatives are evergreen species, even in colder climates.

Also unlike many of its ferny relatives, this species' conservation status is listed as "secure" in all areas of its native range. I find this somewhat hard to believe since we're destroying its native habitat at a rather unprecedented rate, but they're the experts so they know what they're talking about. Part of the success of the species is thanks to its attractiveness; this is also an incredibly popular fern to grow as a landscaping plant in gardens. There are some very similar Chinese and Australian species, though, so if you choose to grow this in your garden make sure you're choosing one of the two native species. Because ferns are so sensitive not just to habitat change but also to climate change, they are at greater risk of extinction than any other plant species. When the dinosaurs ruled the earth, ferns were the dominant plant species; the majority of the "trees" that flying dinosaurs would have made their nests in would have been ancient species of ferns! There are still a few "tree ferns" that exist today, but nothing nearly as majestic as a 75-100 foot tall fern tree. They're much smaller at only 6-10 feet at their maximum.

Maidenhair ferns have been used as a medicinal tea plant for hundreds of years by Native North Americans. It is said to help relieve mucous membrane irritation, and so was often consumed to help sore throats and colds. Since we now know that even just drinking warm water will soothe a sore throat, drinking a tea with maidenhair fern leaves should be surprising that it would help a sore throat. Whether it has any actual medicinal value other than the placebo effect has yet to be determined.