During the latter part of the nineteenth century special trains would arrive in London from growers in the South West of England loaded with ferns, so popular were they with the Victorians.  The florists of the time were particularly keen on the glossy green foliage of one of  the native spleenworts, Asplenium scolopendrium.

Unusually for a fern, the leaves – or, to be correct, the fronds – of Asplenium scolopendrium are whole and undivided, giving the plant a more substantial appearance than other ferns.  Standing a foot high, the fronds are evergreen and remain lush and fresh-looking throughout the winter. The plant will catch and reflect even the weakest rays of winter sunlight, adding a sparkle to the most bleak of winter gardens. At this time of year when very little grows in the cold, dank and uninviting north-facing areas of the garden Asplenium scolopendrium will thrive.

In early spring the slowly-unfurling fronds appear from the core of the plant in a shuttlecock formation and are a rich, lucent, dazzling green. On mature fronds the underside is attractively marked with linear brown strips.  These are the sori, the organs that contain the spores of the plant.

Part of the attraction of the plant is the simplicity of the  straight, clean line of its fronds.  As a change from this the cultivar Asplenium scolopendrium ‘Crispum’ has gauffered edges that give the fronds an undulating effect.  The plantsman E A Bowles likened them to the frilly edges of a maid’s cap.  Another form, Asplenium scolopendrium Cristata Group has unusual feathered crests at the tip of each leaf.

At this time of year when very little grows in the cold, dank and uninviting north-facing areas of the garden Asplenium scolopendrium will thrive.  These are the conditions it enjoys in the wild throughout Britain.

Asplenium scolopendrium is popularly known as the Hart’s Tongue Fern.  I’ve never closely examined the tongue of a deer but the resemblance to the plant must be striking because even in France it has the same common name, Langue de Cerf. 

The fern’s other popular name of spleenwort dates back to the sixteenth century when the Swiss botanist Jacob Böhme published ‘Signatura Rerum’.  This popularised what came to be known as the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’, which suggests that by observing the colour, the texture, the shape of the leaves of a plant and its habitat one can divine what part of the body a plant is capable of treating.  The idea was that God had left a sign on each plant that we have to interpret if we want to cure our ailments.  Popular in Renaissance Europe the same concept is found in the Qur’an, in Chinese philosophy and in the stories of the North American Innuit.  It’s an appealing notion, but unfortunately not one that is supported by modern science.  So the next time you are feeling splenetic, a good cure might simply be to relax in the garden, rather than eating parts of it.

How to grow

Asplenium scolopendrium needs a cool shady place to grow well.  In the wild it is sometimes seen growing in crevices in rocks and stone walls with very little compost.  You can replicate this in the garden but plants grown in poor conditions will tend to be small. The ideal growing conditions are a slightly alkaline well-drained but moist soil that has lots of leaf mould incorporated into in.

Ferns propagate themselves via their spores: a difficult and time-consuming process for gardener’s to imitate.  However, large established clumps of Asplenium scolopendrium can be divided to make new plants.  Do it in the early spring, around February, before the new fronds have started to emerge.