The lovely Venus maidenhair is not quite hardy for us at The Cloisters, and is grown in pots in the medieval gardens. The pinnules of this graceful fern, which flourishes in moist and rocky situations in many parts of the world, repel water. Photographs by Carly Still
The southern or Venus maidenhair (Adiantum capillis-veneris) belongs to a large genus of ferns that includes two hundred species. The botanical name given to the genus Adiantum is from the Greek for “unwetted,” since any water falling on the foliage of these ferns beads up, leaving the leaf surfaces dry. This species was already known by that name in classical antiquity; the Roman natural historian Pliny marveled that a plant that grew in moist places exhibited such a marked antipathy to water. According to Pliny, the plant was known to some as “beautiful hair” or “thick hair.” A decoction of the fern, made by simmering it with celery seed in wine and oil, was used both to dye the hair and to prevent it from falling out (Historia naturalis, Book XXII, 62–65).
Pliny makes no explicit reference to the plant’s association with Venus, goddess of beauty, love, and pleasure, but the association was current in the Middle Ages. In the thirteenth century, the herbalist Rufinus, drawing on a Salernitan source, included the hair of the goddess in a list of alternative names by which the fern was known. (Visit the UCLA Index of Medieval Medical Images for an image of Capillo Venero in an Italian herbal circa 1500.) The fifteenth-century Hortus Sanitatis upheld Pliny’s and Dioscorides’ claim that the fern had the power to arrest hair loss, adding that it fostered a luxuriant growth of women’s hair. Adiantum was also used as an antidote to poisons, snakebite, and dogbite, and to alleviate liver complaints and congestion of the lungs. According to Maude Grieve, Sirop de Capillaire—a pleasant-tasting syrup made from the fronds and rhizomes of maidenhair and flavored with orange flowers—was still widely administered in twentieth-century France as a remedy for pulmonary catarrh.
The graceful, arching fronds, delicate, wiry black stipes, and dainty, fan-shaped pinnules of the Venus maidenhair all contribute to the elegant aspect of this beautiful fern, which is native to temperate and tropical zones in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. Maidenhair fern colonizes wells and damp walls, rocky ledges, and grottoes. It is also widely cultivated in shade gardens, either in ground or in containers, and as a houseplant.
This lovely plant has thoroughly enjoyed our cool, rainy summer. The potted ferns are placed in sheltered positions to avoid over-wetting their roots. (Although maidenhairs prefer a moist habitat, too much water will rot them.) They are well able to protect themselves against excess moisture on their leaves.
Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.
Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal. 1931. Reprint: New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
Griffiths, Mark. The New Royal Horticultural Society Index of Garden Plants. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1992.
Gunther, Robert T., ed. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, translated by John Goodyer 1655. 1934. Reprint: New York: Hafner Publishing, 1968.
Pliny. Natural History, Vol. VI, Books XX–XXIII. With an English translation by W. H. S. Jones. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1951, reprinted 1961, revised and reprinted 1969.
The Herbal of Rufinus. Edited from the unique manuscript by Lynn Thorndike, assisted by Francis S. Benjamin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946, reprinted 1949.