Growing moonwort ferns add an interesting and unusual element to the sunny garden spot. If you’re not familiar with this plant, you might wonder “what is moonwort?”
Growing moonwort ferns are not commonly found in domestic gardens, as they are difficult to locate in nurseries and garden centers. Even in the wild, botanists sometimes have trouble finding the small plant. If you find one, though, moonwort fern care is fairly simple once the plant is established.
Simply put, moonwort is a small, perennial fern, with leaflets shaped like a half-moon, hence the common name. Botrychium lunaria is of the Adder’s-tongue family, and according to common moonwort information, this is the most commonly found specimen of the moonwort family in North America and Europe. The history of this plant indicates that it was once an element of witches’ and alchemists’ brews in centuries past. Pagans collected the plant by the light of the full moon, fearing its potency would be lost if gathered at another time.
Don’t confuse the common moonwort with the other plant that’s sometimes called the same name, Lunaria annua. The easy to grow, money plant or silver dollar plant is totally different. B. Lunaria, while small, is one of the bigger specimens of 23 known varieties of moonwort and one of the most commonly found in the wild. The plants rarely reach more than 3 inches in height and often grow among taller grasses. The plant emerges as a single shoot but is actually a combination of both a fertile and a barren stem. Leaflets on the plant are not called fronds as they are on other ferns. Common moonwort information also indicates that it’s difficult to count wild plants, and thus, comment on moonwort fern care because much of this plant’s activity occurs underground. Some years it does not appear above the ground but continues developing beneath the soil surface.
Growing Moonwort Ferns Most plants of the moonwort family are considered rare and many are endangered or threatened in some areas. Some are in peril. Common moonwort information, while not substantial in many areas, does provide a few tips on how to grow moonwort.
Plants are rarely available, so gardeners may attempt growing moonwort from spores. This is a long and often difficult process. Growing moonwort fern is most likely to be successful by finding one that has volunteered in your area. Gardeners in the northern Midwest of the United States are most likely to find a plant growing, although growing moonwort ferns may appear in other areas. Mark the area and check back year after year. Or transplant a portion of the fleshy roots, along with the stems which have emerged. When moving moonwort, remove a good part of the surrounding soil to avoid disturbing the roots of this fern. Keep the soil slightly moist, never too wet or soggy. When learning how to grow moonwort, plant it in well-draining soil in sun or partial sun. Differing from other ferns, this plant cannot exist in full or even partial shade.
The frond of the Moonwort fern rises early in the spring, and in its early stage would scarcely suggest the idea of a fern. An upright simple stem is the first appearance presented, which is, in fact, a bud enclosing the frond, or rather the two fronds, a fertile and a barren one, clasping each other. The stem is separated into two branches, one of which is spreading, leafy, and lance-shaped. The pinnae are obliquely fan-shaped or lunate segments, of a thick consistency, and entire or crenate.
The fruitful branch of the stem is pinnate; the pinnae generally corresponding in number to those of the leafy branch on which distinct globular capsules are borne, which, when mature, open and allow the seeds to escape. Occasionally, but very rarely, two fertile branches are produced, and there is a variety in which the pinnae are pinnatifid.
On dry open moors, among harebells and heather, this fern is not uncommon throughout the United Kingdom, but from its diminutive size, it often escapes observation. In England, it is chiefly found in the counties of Staffordshire, Surrey, and Yorkshire, and also in the Isle of Wight. The curious crescent-shaped pinnae of this fern, from which it derives its name Moonwort, doubtless induced the older botanists and alchemists to believe in its wondrous potency. From what we can gather about these ancient superstitions, the plants were to be gathered by the light of the full moon, or all their powers were lost. It was supposed that this plant possessed the power of opening locks, loosening fetters, bars, and the shoes from off horses’ feet. Withers says, writing in 1622:
“There is a herb, some say, whose virtue’s such, It in the pasture, only with a touch, Unshoes the new-shod steed.”
There is a tale told, that the Earl of Essex and his followers being drawn up in a body upon White Down, in Devonshire, near Tiverton, the shoes of their horses fell off, and it was discovered that Moonwort was growing on the heath. To us, this story seems very like that told of Tenterden Steeple and the Goodwin Sands.
Our old friend Gerarde makes mention of the use of this fern by alchemists, and as a remedy for “green and fresh wounds.” A large and succulent species of Moonwort is boiled and eaten in the southern states of America.
Of all ferns, this is one of the easiest to cultivate, never refusing to grow freely if properly treated. It requires a good depth of soil in the fernery, and must not be kept too damp. Mr. Newman regards the plant as an underground parasite. The best plan to secure success is to transplant the roots with a portion of the sail in which they are growing, or to remove the sod for some distance round the plant, so as not to disturb it.