The Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis), also known as the ‘Bog Onion’ is Dartmoor’s largest fern and indeed the largest European fern – hence its name. This fern can grow anything between two and four metres high. During the summer months the fronds are a dark green and comprise of spiked green sporing shoots. These have fertile fronds at the top of the spike with sterile fronds underneath, these normally have between two to three pinnae of paired sterile fronds beneath them. The top parts of the spikes have what looks like bunches of grapes which when ripe will split open thus releasing the spores and then turn an orangish brown. The Royal Fern thrives in wet acidic soils and is often found on the banks of woodland water courses. Today the Royal Fern can be found in such places as Fingle Woods, Ausewell Woods, the banks of the river Webburn, and along the Double Dart. During the excavation work on the Whitehorse Hill kistvaen peat samples showed the onetime presence of Osmunda regalis.
Here is a description of a walk taken along Fingle Woods in 1874 – “Here we pass into this pleasant region by a fisherman’s path, winding along banks set with wild flowers, through thickets of sweet gale, filling the air with its aromatic scent, and at last, through a wilderness of Osmunda, the Royal Fern, lifting its great ash-leaved fronds almost above our heads, and fluttering with changing colour in the breeze. This is its chosen home; and it has taken possession of the riverside for at least a quarter of a mile. It ceases as the oaks close up, and then we enter a region of mingled shadow and sunlight.” Similarly – “The Buckland Drives, which are the loveliest and most interesting part of the moor. At the foot of the rugged drive the Dart is seen dashing between rocks and bends on its way to the deeper parts of the river. This is the home of the Osmunda Regalis the Royal fern, and grand were the clumps which graced the river bank.” In 1902 near Newbridge – “There is no more lovely spot on the whole moor-side than this green valley. The river with its noisy shallows and deep dark pools, the bold crags and prehistoric boulders on the opposite hillside, the acres of bracken, the splendid specimens of the rare Royal Fern, which grow along the river banks in reckless profusion, and the towering height of Buckland Beacon at the end of the valley, all tend to make this spot one of nature’s most perfect gems.”
From around the mid 1840s there was a great resurgence in the trend of growing ferns in ornamental gardens as pond features. This led to the inception of the ‘fern hunters’ who either for their own use or commercial gain began plundering the wild Royal Ferns. Along with these scavengers came amateur botanists who too were taking the ferns for their specimen collections who would try to cultivate or press and dry them. The result of both practices was that Dartmoor’s wild Royal Fern populations were greatly denuded. In 1878 F. G. Heath published a book called the ‘Fern Paradise’ in which he extolled the virtues of fern hunting on Dartmoor by saying: “In bogland and as well as woodland and along the streams of the moorlands the Royal Fern finds its habitats. The largest specimens have enormous roots and the fern-hunter will have to labour hard to get them up. But it is a labour of love, and not one to be delegated to others. After carefully digging up in the woods and transplanting your fern garden a noble specimen, there is an immense satisfaction in remembering, when you see it unroll its fronds in its new home, that you yourself gathered it Every time you look at it the sight brings back delightful association of the wild woods and the grand moorland scenery, amongst which you may have wandered in your fern-hunting rambles.” – F. G. Heath, p.280.
As can be imagined, hoards of fern hunters soon began to have an impact and came to the notice of the local population. In the July of 1888 the Western Times published the following letter from an Okehampton resident; “Sir – I should be so obliged if through your medium it became known to landowners and others that at present there is a regular marauding set of scamps at work. Scamps who are going around clearing the woods, parks, and riversides of ferns and sending them away to Covent Gardens. Three weeks ago we arrested four huge hampers of ferns taken from our park, known as Okehampton Park, which is private property, and enclosed by walls and fences, entered by private gates. This morning, at six a.m. a porter aroused our household to tell them a man was at the station with freshly obtained ferns which were to be sent off to a flower gardener. He had rooted up 72 plants. If such wholesale depredations go on we shall have no ferns left, and they greatly add to the beauty of our property.” In 1912 another letter was published saying; “In the past fifty years unchecked vandalism has taken terrible toll or our fern life, and nothing has suffered more shamefully tha the Royal Fern. It is not as if its loss to the countryside were compensated by the abundance in gardens. Thousands of times specimens of it have been brought from hawkers or gathered and taken home only to die in an unsuitable position. For the fern requires something like a spongy peat for its roots, and this must always be kept moist. It’s a mere waste of a beautiful plant to try to grow it where those conditions cannot be ensured.” Similarly in 1933; “There are many spots on the Moor where one would expect to find the Royal Fern flourishing, but it is not. In similar nooks in Cornwall the Osmunda is in evidence and seems indigenous. But in Heathercombe, Buckland, Badger’s Holt, to mention a few of the likely places, the Royal Fern is conspicuous by its absence.”
Now follows an account of one of Mr. Heath’s fern hunts on Dartmoor – “We started from Totnes to search, on the borders of Dartmoor, for some specimens of the Royal Fern, taking the precaution to provide ourselves with the necessary digging implements. Away we drove for seven miles amidst every varying landscapes, by copse, hedgerow, stream, and meadow: now climbing the upland road; now – arrived on the upland crest – catching a momentary glimpse of the wide landscape, spread, in the mingled loveliness, over many a long mile; now passing down a steep declivity, under the darkening shadow of overhanging woods. Still descending, on we went. Now we crossed the glancing waters of the winding Dart, and now ascending and descending upland after upland, we arrived at length at a point of our road within a few hundred yards of our destination. Then we turned round to the right, and before descending a carriage road just wide enough to admit our barouche, we paused a moment, spell-bound by the transcendent loveliness of the scene. A valley of woods of varying hues of green, and in the deepest gorge of the valley the beautiful Dart, its winding course – where the glancing water was hidden from view – shown by the taller forms and the darker shade of the trees on its banks. A few moments more, and we have, in following our narrow path, lost the outside view. We are now, in fact, away from the sunlight, and under the shade of the tall and graceful trees of a coppice. Oh, delightful coolness! Beneath our feet soft velvety turf of glorious golden green. Above the tall tree-tops screening the sunlight and checking the blue sky.
But the Osmunda – the stately, the beautiful Osmunda! We are close upon its habitat. The fern abounds in lovely Devonshire, and fringes the banks of the Dart, and we are now within sight of that river. We turn form the coppice along a narrow winding path, and as we proceed onward the sound of rushing water strikes on our ear. Now screening branches deepen the shadows on our way, until presently the light comes in upon our path through the tangled shrubs on our right. Putting those on one side and brushing into their midst, we soon find ourselves on the river’s bank. Then we emerge again into the full daylight. The sun sparkles on the rippling stream, giving the light as from ten thousand diamonds; and here, at last, bending over the banks – their tall fronds spreading outwards and moving responsively to the breeze, which is briskly blowing – are Osmundas in rich profusion! Hard by is a fine tuft of Mountain Buckler fern, and intermingled with it are equally fine tufts of the Hard Fern. Both are on the extreme brink of the stream, and their roots and those of the Osmundas are within reach of the abundant moisture, which is the secret of their grand proportions. Split fragments of rock are scattered about on the riverside and in mid stream, giving a wild picturesque to the whole scene, which is beyond description. The gurgling, splashing, foaming water, sparkling with its ten thousand diamond flashes; the wood-bounded, winding banks, with waving fern fronds, now carried aloft and arching outwards with graceful symmetry, now softly drooping, whilst their pendant tips are caught one moment by the impatient stream, to be released the next and to fling a shower of silver drops around them.” – Heath, pp. 218 – 284.
The roots are used for the production of Osmunda fibre which may be utilised as a growing medium for cultivated orchids. Like many ferns the ‘fiddleheads’ (young shoots) can be eaten and come with a taste akin to asparagus. The medicinal properties of Royal Fern have been known for centuries. In the seventeenth century the herbalist Nicholas Culpepper wrote -“This has all the virtues mentioned in the former Ferns, and is much more effectual than they, both for inward and outward griefs: and is accounted singularly good in wounds, bruises or the like: the decoction to be drunk or boiled into an ointment of oil, as a balsam or balm, and so it is singularly good against bruises and bones broken or out of joint, and gives much ease to the colic and splenetic diseases: as also for ruptures and burstings.” Even earlier John Gerard in his Gerald’s Herbal noted that; “Gerard – “The root and especially the heart or middle thereof, boiled or else stamped and taken with some kinde of liquor, is thought to be good for those that are wounded, drybeaten and bruised, that have fallen from some high place.” This part of the Royal Fern is also known as ‘The heart of Osmund the Waterman‘. Today some of the recognised healing uses are as a deconcoction of roots for jaundice,an ointment of roots for wounds, bruises and dislocations and has been recommended for lumbago.
Where did the Latin name ‘Osmunda‘ originate from? At the time when the Danes were busy invading this country there was a ferryman called Osmund who plied his trace on Loch Tyne. After a hard days work Osmund, his wife and daughter were sat on the banks of the loch watching the sun go down. Suddenly the sound of hurrying footsteps could be heard approaching them. It was the inhabitants of the nearby village who were fleeing to escape the invading Danes who were attacking their homes. There was a small island in the loch which was festooned with Royal Ferns and without hesitation Osmund rowed his family to the island and hid his wife and daughter amongst the masses of fronds. He then went back to his ferry station and waited for the Danes to approach. Clearly they needed his services and so having ferried them across the loch they spared his life. When he was sure they had long gone Osmund rowed back to the island and brought them back safely to their little cott. To commemorate the event the Royal Ferns which safely hid his family were thence forth known as Osmunda.
There is also a theory and that the name Osmunda simply refers to Osmunder which is the old Anglo-Saxon term used for the god Thor which again alludes to the large size and strength of the fern. There is also a connection to St. Christopher insomuch as he being the patron saint of watermen and so in memory of him carrying the Christ child over the river the fern has been dedicated to him. Maybe this idea was an attempt to Christianise the story of Osmund the ferryman?
F. G. Heath. 1878. The Fern Paradise. London: Sampson Bow, Marston, Searle & Rivington.