Hart's-tongue FernBy Sharon Brown (Sharran)
July 7, 2009
The mountain behind our house went all the way up to heaven. I had known that for a long time, and had been told that most of the Appalachian mountains were tall enough to take you there, too. It was supposed to be too long a walk for a little girl, but I thought I would try it anyway. There were many rock ledges on that mountain, and to me their cave like openings seemed large enough to house a small family. My plan was to make my way to heaven slowly by climbing upward from one rocky ledge to another. I had discovered all those outcropping rocks when Aunt Bett and I went searching for hart's-tongue fern.
Before I ever saw the plant, I imagined that it would be a fern shaped like a heart with its tongue showing, and upon seeing it I had some problems understanding why it looked like an ordinary long green leaf. Aunt Bett said she wasn't the one who named it and that I would be better off if I didn't talk so much while we were climbing the mountain. I had planned to tell her that I was glad she had taken me to find the fern since now I knew how to get to heaven, but thought better of it. Recently I realized I had been looking at the fern leaf upside down. I was looking from its stalk to its tip, but if you take a look from the tip back to the stalk, you will see the heart shape of the leaf, and you will also see that it narrows toward the tip creating a tongue shape. If you put those two images together you can see a hart (deer), complete with rounded horns, and it looks much like it is sticking its tongue out.
I have a writer friend who pointed me to the etymology of the word, and find that "hart" comes from an old English word, heorot, which means deer. The modern Dutch word, hert, also means deer. The county Hertfordshire is named after a place where deer ford a watercourse. The word, hart, is not commonly used, but if you also remember your Shakespeare, think of Twelfth Night in which The White Hart and The Red Hart are common English pub names. 
Hart's-tongue fern, Phyllitis scolopendrium, seems to grow right out of the rock. Aunt Bett always said it grew between a rock and a hard place and I believed her. It has slightly leathery, very glossy undivided leaves, not very fern-like actually, and it is a short lived plant that is evergreen for as long as it lives. It only grows for two years, then dies at the beginning of the third year. When it is gone, if it doesn't return through its own spores, then it is simply gone forever. It grows well in and near damp, shady, cool caves, wells, walls, ravines and limestone cliffs. It was introduced from Europe and grows in North America from Ontario southward, then west through Tennessee.
Its leafstalks are brownish and hairy. The fronds, about one foot long and maybe a couple of inches wide, are wavy, lance shaped, pointed, and heart shaped at the base. Aunt Bett used it for liver and spleen problems, and since I didn't have either, I can't tell you what it tasted like. Truth is, there have been no tests to confirm or deny that it works on anything. At any rate, that was my mission in life in those days, to help my great Aunt Bett find the plants she needed in order to extract the medicines from them. She did tell me some interesting stories about ferns. One of them stated that because St. Patrick put a curse on ferns they have no flowers. I don't know where that theory came from, but it sounds Irish to me. She usually had stories to tell about most of the plants she used.
Actually the little fiddleheads were very fernlike in their delicate coil. The coils always reminded me of baby snakes, and they are a lovely plant. I had been told that most ferns became supplemental foods for weary travelers who were carving their way through the mountains looking for a safe place to settle. I thought that was a good thing to know since I was going to be a weary traveler on my way to heaven. I could stop at each cave to rest and have a bite of hart's-tongue fern to go along with the peanut butter and crackers I was taking with me. There were always cold streams trickling down the sides of the mountains, so I was not worried about thirst. And I thought if it took longer than one day to get there, the caves would be a nice place to sleep.
So, I found the rocky ledges, which made excellent caves for a little girl, while we gathered the fern. And I made my plans for going to heaven. I asked Aunt Bett if she knew how many more caves there might be before we got to the top of the mountain, and she said she wasn't sure but probably eight or ten. After we had gone to the fourth one and got as many hart's-tongue ferns as she needed, I asked her if she had been to all of them. She told me that she had, then I asked her why she hadn't gone the rest of the way to heaven. Aunt Bett told me she reckoned the Lord wasn't quite ready for her yet, and until He was ready, them pearly gates would stay shut.
I had planned to take my boyfriend, Billy, with me. He was already nine, and I was only eight, but he was good with a slingshot and had impressed me a time or two when he shot Joe Devlin in the seat of his pants for putting chewing gum in my hair. I figured since he had saved my life, I owed it to him to take him with me when I went to heaven. I planned to leave on Saturday so that even if we had to stay overnight, we would be in heaven in time for Sunday church. I told Billy.
He said he had to be home before dark, and he didn't think he could eat a fern unless I could cook it. I told him I was taking peanut butter too, but he told me he only ate grilled cheese sandwiches and was allergic to peanut butter. I asked to borrow his slingshot, and he told me it was not a weapon for a girl. I broke up with him.
I never did get to the top of that mountain. I climbed as high as the seventh ledge over the years, but always managed to find enough hart's-tongue ferns without going any higher. Truth is, without Billy, I was afraid to go to heaven all by myself.
Afterward: Sometimes I meet the most interesting folks through my articles, and this one was no exception. Growin is a Dave's Garden member from Vancouver, BC. I was using some of his photos for this article, and in talking with him he told me this story about his Aunt Monica. He also gave me permission to share the story with you. Here is the story in Growin's words:
"Aunt Monica was an ambulance driver in London during WWII and her ambulance was involved in one of the bombings. She lost all of her hearing. She did pretty well at lip reading, though. She was quite a gardener and when I'd visit with my parents the garden was always on the go. The little greenhouse was always full of different geraniums in full color and one little treasure that Aunt Monica gave me was one of her Hart's Tongue Ferns that grew along side her little greenhouse. I was amused that a fern could have an entire leaf and the glossy leaves were quite attractive. I was quite young and in high school at the time, but I grew that plant for many years.
One thing my father mentioned about Aunt Monica was her involvement in Victory Gardens. I suspect she was quite busy with that once she lost her hearing. Watching her was an eye opening moment seeing a true gardener doing what she loved. I guess I have become a true plantsman in the same way she was a gardener. As we grow as people, there are those along the road that nurture our love of gardening and she certainly did. That fern she gave me was babied for many years and I have always encouraged others with gardening and plants. I have given away tons of my own plants, too. I wish Aunt Monica was still around, I could probably learn something from her."
Thank you, Growin, it seems to me you have learned and shared a lot.
Photos of hart's-tongue fern are from Plant Files. Thanks to these photographers for the use of their lovely photos: Cretaceous for the thumbnail, Baa for the photo of young coils, Lodewijkp for the image of the fern in dark background, and growin for the two images of the full leafed ferns, and the last photo of the underside of the leaf.
 Thanks also to Lois Tilton for pointing me to this information in Wikipedia.