This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Frond pinnate; leaflets roundish, subsessile, small, roundish-obovate, obtusely cuneate and entire at base, crenate above; stipe black and polished; frond three to six inches high, lance-linear in outline, with eight to twelve pairs of roundish, sessile leaflets, three to four lines long; fruit in several linear-oblong, finally roundish sori on each leaflet, placed oblique to the mid-vein. A small and delicate fern, forming tufts on shady rocks. (Wood's Class-Book of Botany. See also Gray's Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States.)
HIS plant is not only a native of the United States, but is quite as much at home in Old England, to whose people it was known as "English Maiden-Hair," at a time when botany was still in its infancy, and had scarcely grown to the dignity of a science. The specific designation of "English" was applied to it to distinguish it from the Adiantum Capillus Veneris, which was called the "True Maiden-Hair."Even in those early times, however, Latin and Greek names were given to plants besides their common names; and whenever the plants mentioned by the ancients could be identified, the appellations used by them were adopted. But when no ancient name existed a new one was created, and thus our pretty little fern came to be called Trichomanes, from two Greek words, signifying "soft hair." It was also named Capillaris and Filicula, both of which words convey a somewhat similar meaning, but Trichomanes carried the day against them. Linnaeus, therefore, found tin-name in use when he commenced to build up modern botany. But at the same time he found other ferns, which were called Asplenium, or Spleen wort; and as he conceived Trichomanes to belong to the genus which he looked upon as the true Aspk-nium, he accordingly classed the two together, and retained the former proper name of our plant as its specific appellation. This explains why the specific name in Asplaiium Trichomanes, which stands in place of an adjective, is written with a capital. As a rule, of course, all specific names are written with a small letter; but this rule.suffers an exception whenever the specific is a proper name, or is derived from one.
The reason for applying the term Trichomanes, or soft hair, to our plant, does not seem to be clearly established. Modern authors find in this term an allusion to the delicate, black, shining stipes (or stalks). But an old writer seems to derive it from the small, hard, black, fibrous or thready roots; and he makes this all the more probable by the manner in which he speaks of the True Maiden-Hair. This, he says, "has a root which consists of a number of blackish-brown fibres or threads, from whence springs up a small, low herb, not above a span high, whose stalks are smaller, finer, redder, and more shining than those of the Trichomanes"
Asplenium, as we have seen, is likewise an old name, and used to be applied to a class of plants which were held to be specifics in diseases of the spleen. In bygone times the shape of a leaf was believed to indicate its usefulness. Thus a heart-shaped leaf was supposed to be a curative in heart diseases; one that was kidney-shaped, in diseases of the kidneys; and the fact that the segments of the fronds of some of these ferns somewhat resembled the shape of the spleen, seems to have been the only reason for ascribing to them their presumed medicinal virtues. A very slender foundation, no doubt! Still, these things were as firmly believed by our forefathers as other medical matters are believed by ourselves, and perhaps with no more reason. Dr. Prior quotes an old writer as saying that, "if the asse be oppressed with melancholy, he eates of this herbe, Asplenioh or Miltwaste, and so eases himself of the swelling of the spleen." He also quotes the Roman architect Vitruvius, who, in the fourth chapter of the first of his "Ten Books on Architecture," when discussing the advantages and disadvantages of the sites to be selected for cities, says that the physicians of his time cured diseases of the spleen by means of Asplenium, because it was found that the sheep on one side of the river Pothereus, in the island of Crete, where this herb grows, had smaller spleens than those on the other side, where it does not grow. This does not, indeed, refer to our present species, but is in place, as explaining the origin of the name Asplenium, which is derived from the Greek a, privative, and splen, the spleen.
Although most of the "virtues" formerly attributed to Asple-nium were, as we have seen, mere fancies, our present species is, nevertheless, not without some merit. Syrup of Capillaire is very popular in some countries, and is said to be of real service in coughs and thoracic diseases. According to some English writers this syrup is made of our plant, although Dr. Lindley says that "Capillaire is prepared from the Adiantum Capillus Veneris, a plant which is considered undoubtedly pectoral, and slightly astringent, though its decoction, if strong, according to Ainslie, is a certain emetic."
The English Maiden-Hair is as nearly cosmopolitan as any species may well be. It is usually found growing in the crevices of damp, shady rocks; and according to Mr. J. H. Red-field, one of the best authorities on American ferns, the possibility of finding such a situation is the only condition which limits its distribution all over the world. Some English authorities, indeed, speak of it as occasionally growing on damp earth in shady places; but as a rule, old damp walls, or cold, shaded rocks are given as its place of abode by all the writers who treat of it. It is so easily found that few authors think it worth while to give any special locality for it. Prof. Wood is entirely silent in regard to the matter; Dr. Gray simply says "common"; Darlington speaks of it as frequent "on shady rocks and banks"; and only Dr. Chapman, in his "Flora of the Southern United States," limits it by "rocks along the Alleghanies and northward." Dr. Haskins, in the "Botanical Gazette," reports having gathered it in Grayson County, Ky.; and collectors in New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and especially in Michigan, speak of it as abundant. Mr. Brandegee collected it in Southern Colorado; and in short, as Mr. Redfield observes, it may appear wherever the conditions are favorable. It was not found by the early botanists in the District of Columbia, as appears by Breretons catalogue, but is now included in the list of the Potomac Naturalists' Club.
Although so common, the Asplenium Trichomancs is, in our estimation, one of the most delicately beautiful of all ferns. The single leaflets are, indeed, rather formal in outline, but their heaviness is relieved by the prominent veins on the upper surface, which give to them somewhat the appearance of being plaited. The contrast between the leaflets and the slender stipes is also very attractive, and calls up the idea of weakness and strength happily united. There is, moreover, a great deal of intellectual pleasure to be derived from seeing this little plant growing in its native locations. Many of our gay-flowering plants will only deign to exhibit their charms in a very limited circle of high society, where they are petted and pampered. But this little fern, like a good angel, goes forth over the wide world, seeking out the cold, cheerless spots which are despised and left in utter loneliness by its gayly colored companions, and decks them with an elegant and chaste beauty which even the more aristocratic members of the floral kingdom might envy. If any poet wishes to find an emblem of universal love, and of charity to the poor and forsaken, he cannot certainly choose anything better befitting the idea than our English Maiden-Hair.
1. Complete plant from a specimen gathered in Massachusetts.
2. Leaflet enlarged, showing upper surface.
3. Leaflet enlarged, showing lower surface and sporangia.