Ferns are more than just beautiful garden plants or the greenery in the arrangement from the florist's shop; they're also a powerful reminder of concepts like rebirth, healing, and even dance. What ferns symbolize depends on the culture and the type of fern, and it's fascinating to learn about this deeper meaning.
What Ferns Symbolize in Different Cultures
More than 12,000 different kinds of ferns grow around the world, and you can find them on every continent (even Antarctica). Many have medicinal properties, and some are even edible. Their usefulness and ubiquity make them a pretty big deal in many cultures, and it's no surprise they are also highly symbolic.
Some Native American Tribes - Dance and Water
It's important to remember that there are many different Native American cultures with diverse beliefs, so ferns don't mean the same thing to groups on the West Coast that they do to those from Appalachia. Some Native American cultures view ferns as a symbol of traditional dance, and others consider them a sign of water. Many groups used them medicinally for everything from childbirth pain to digestive issues.
Celtic and Irish Culture - Healing and Magic
Ferns figure into Irish legends, and fern symbolism in Celtic culture ranges from healing to magic. The plants show up in stories and art about fairies, and they also appear in legends as a healing plant. Fern seeds are said to protect against evil, and old medicinal texts such as Culpeper's Complete Herbal recommend the plant for digestive problems and burns.
Slavic and Baltic Folklore - Happiness and Riches
Folk legend says that the fern flowers for only one night in Midsummer. The story goes that if someone finds the fern flower on that night, they will get lifelong riches and happiness. It's also associated with good fortune for couples who look for and find the fern flower when they are betrothed.
Christian Culture - Sincerity and Humility
Although the fern does appear in Christian stories like The Fern and the Bamboo, its symbolism is open to interpretation. One way to look at it is that the fern grows deep in the forest and requires dedication and a willingness to be solitary. Some Christians feel that because of this, the fern symbolizes humility and sincerity.
Māori Symbolism - Power and Attachment to Home
The native Māori of New Zealand associate the fern with attachment to their land and with power and strength. A specific and very rare species of tree fern, called the silver fern, grows only in New Zealand and is highly symbolic in that country.
Victorian England - Science and Romance
In Victorian England, collecting ferns actually became a super trendy obsession, especially for young women. Called pteridomania, this fern craze began in the 1830s and supposedly only appealed to the intelligent and scientific members of society. Fashionable young women had ferneries or special cases for their fern collections, and collecting ferns became a less structured way for them to spend time with men. In the language of flowers popular with Victorians, ferns represent fascination, secret love, and magic.
Types of Ferns and Their Meanings
Because there are so many different kinds of ferns, it's impossible to assign a meaning to each one. However, these are a few of the notable species and what they symbolize to some people:
- Boston fern - A wonderful house plant that adds ambiance to any room, the Boston fern can symbolize sincerity.
- Maidenhair fern - Maidenhair fern can stand for secret love, as well as innocence.
- Staghorn fern - Resembling the antlers of a stag or elk, the staghorn fern may represent pride, persistence, and the unending circle of life.
- Ostrich fern - The ostrich fern is an outdoor variety that can represent magic and possibility.
- Asparagus fern - A variety with delicate, fine foliage, the asparagus fern can symbolize eternity and friendship.
Choose What Ferns Mean to You
If you're choosing a tattoo design or giving a bouquet of flowers and ferns that has meaning, it's helpful to know a bit about fern symbolism. Keep in mind, though, that none of these meanings are set in stone. You can choose what a specific type of fern means to you.