Semi-evergreen, height to 30cm. Hardy in very mild areas, though protection advised in cold winters).
This pretty species is the solitary member of this genus in Britain and Ireland. It is a cosmopolitan species, found in warm, damp places around the world, including Wales, Devon, Cornwall and southern Ireland.
It needs warmth, shade and moisture to grow well and given these conditions it is easy to grow. It prefers a limey soil so a touch of dolomitic limestone can be added to the potting mix. The fronds will die back if subject to frost, but stays evergreen if kept warm over the winter.
Adiantum capillus-veneris (The Maiden Hair Fern) 9cm
The species name means 'Venus Hair', alluding to the thin, dark stems. This has been noted as the most attractive of our native ferns, especially where it grows in abundance.
This fern has historically had a number of uses. It used to be used as an expectorant, from the Arundel Manuscripts "It mundifyeth the lunges and the breste, and cacceth out wykede materes in hem". It is prepared by simply pouring boiling water on the fronds to produce a mucilage and odour. As well as medieval Britain, it was also used for this purpose world-wide, including the American Indians.
The naturalist John Ray (1627-1705) writes that it is a cure for many ills, including baldness! He writes "stayeth the falling or shedding of the hair, and causeth it to grow thick, fair, and well-coloured". For those interested in the recipe it also contains wild celery, oil and wine.
Talking of food and wine there is one commercial use of this fern in use today. In France they use the fern to make Capillaire, an orange-blossom flavoured syrup. If you wish to make this then the following recipe could be useful:
Take your Adiantum capillus-veneris, coarsely chop
and place in a sieve. Pour boiling water onto this, cover, and leave to infuse for ten hours. Strain and add some syrup. Clarify with egg white, heat and skim until clear. Cool and bottle. You are now ready to make the Capillaire! To a pint of this syrup add a wine glass of Curaçoa (easy way!), or dissolve a drachm of Oil of Neroli in two ounces of Rectified Spirit and add a few drops of this to the syrup.
Apparently Capillaire is an essential ingredient in a Pudding Catsup which is Half a pint of brandy, a pint of sherry, an ounce of mace and a half an ounce of cloves steeped for two weeks and strained. Added to this is half a pint of Capillaire. It keeps (unsurprisingly!) for years and is said to be a "most delicious relish to puddings, and many sweet dishes".
Remember to enjoy your ferns responsibly!