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Symbolism of Fern Plants

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A living fossil with a botanical history dating back 360 million years, the fern symbolizes endurance, resilience, and a new beginning. In addition to their distinctive feathery foliage, ferns have rich symbolism and cultural significance.

If you like to walk in the forest, you have encountered delicate, fragile ferns. They like shaded, moist forest undergrowth where they are protected from the winds.

Ferns, often called living lace, have a cultural significance that transcends their aesthetic appeal. Often seen as a symbol of new life and fresh beginnings, fern transcends time and weaves through art and poetry.


Fern botanical characteristics: How many types of fern do we have?

The ferns (Polypodiopsida or Polypodiophyta) are vascular plants species with fibrous roots that conduct water and nutrients.

Unlike other flowering plants, fern plants have neither seeds nor flowers; these plants use spores for reproduction. Like Ginkgo trees, The development of ferns traces back to prehistoric times , when they transformed from water plants. Ferns ruled the world during this era, reaching 5-40 m heights. Thanks to which we have fossil fuels today. Today, we know about 20,000 species of ferns; some of them, such as the Boston fern, are known to be natural air purifiers.

Ferns have compound leaves known as fern fronds, whose shape and size vary, ranging from delicate and feathery to large and lance-shaped. During their early growth, fern leaves emerge from fiddleheads, gradually unfurling into their mature form. 

Ferns grow from underground stems called rhizomes, which spread horizontally beneath the soil surface. These rhizomes produce fibrous roots that anchor the fern in the soil and absorb water and nutrients. 

Fern leaves

Symbolism and Spiritual meaning of ferns

The symbolism of ferns has played an important role in various cultures for centuries. 

Endurance and Resilience

due to their ancient lineage and ability to adapt to different environments, some cultures held the common belief that ferns were a symbol of endurance and resilience, like oak tree. The unfurling of delicate fronds of beautiful ferns from a resilient fiddlehead is metaphorically linked to overcoming challenges and hardships.

In Maori culture, specifically, the silver fern represents the symbolic meaning of strength, unwavering resistance, and enduring power. For Pākehā, New Zealanders of non-Māori descent, the fern symbolized their deep connection to their homeland. (1)


Ferns symbolize New life and new Beginnings.

When you think about the tightly coiled fiddleheads and how they are reborn each spring, it is no wonder that this plant symbolizes new beginnings. In this sense, ferns represent growth, transformation, and new possibilities.

Similarly, spring flowers like dandelions symbolize a new beginning and hope for positive transformation.

Humility and Sincerity

Victorians used language of flowers, where ferns were associated with sincerity. They were often exchanged as gifts to convey genuine feelings and honest emotions. Additionally, the lush, arching fronds of ferns can symbolize a form of protective shelter.

Symbol of Magic and Mysticism

In some cultures, ferns represent magical qualities and are associated with mystical beings. The intricate patterns of fern fronds have inspired myths and stories, linking them to hidden wonders of the natural world. See the stories below in Myths and Folklore.

In different cultures, people have seen ferns as magical power, using them to bring money, attract love, and control the weather. Some cultures still burn ferns today as they believe that ferns, as a symbol of eternal youth, could end droughts and cause it to rain.

Fern Fronds
Fern Fronds

Fern symbolism Eternal Love

In certain traditions, ferns are considered symbols of eternal love. The enduring nature of ferns, which have survived for millions of years, is used metaphorically to represent lasting and timeless love.

Certain fern species, such as the Maidenhair Fern, are used to help couples strengthen their bonds with each other.

Little Fern brings good fortune.

According to folk legend, the fern is said to bloom for just one night during Midsummer. The tale suggests that discovering the fern flower on that particular night brings a lifetime of wealth and happiness. Additionally, people used to associate the fern with good fortune for engaged couples who seek and find the fern flower during their betrothal.

Wardian Cases
Wardian Cases

Cultural Significance and Symbolism of Fern Leaves Through the History

Pteridomania and Victorian Era Craze

 In Victorian England, there was a craze called Pteridomania. People grew ferns as houseplants and collected ferns and incorporated their motifs into decorative art, from pottery to gravestones. The trend showcased the widespread influence of ferns in Victorian culture.

The craze for growing ferns indoors led to creating the Wardian case, a glazed cabinet that protected ferns from pollutants and maintained the necessary humidity. This case not only preserved delicate ferns but also became a symbol of the era’s passion for bringing nature into homes. The Victorian fascination with ferns left a lasting impact on the aesthetics of the time.

silver fern
Silver fern

Silver Fern in New Zealand culture

Despite being called ‘silver ferns,’ they usually have white undersides, with true ‘silver’ observed only in some northern populations. The reflective undersides make them useful for navigating forest paths at night, especially in moonlight.

Even though it is not yet featured on the country’s official flag, this fern variety became their national symbol associated with sports teams and the armed forces and has deep emotional resonance for New Zealanders. (2)

In American Culture

Ferns in Native American cultures hold diverse beliefs, so the importance of ferns varies between groups on the West Coast and those from Appalachia. For some Native American cultures, ferns symbolize traditional dance, while others see them as a representation of 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 indigenous people believe that the fern represents new life, rebirth and new beginnings. In Japan, ferns exemplify family and hope for the future. 

In Japan, ferns are associated with family and hope for the future. 

Myths and Folklore associated with Ferns

New Zealand Folklore

The Maoris of New Zealand historically used silver ferns (Cyathea dealbata) as guides in the dark. The silvery undersides of the leaves, reflecting the moon and stars, created a glowing effect, aiding in navigation. This fern variety, abundant in New Zealand, became their national symbol. 

Regimental badge- 6th (Manawatu) Mounted Rifles, WW1 period brass badge
Regimental badge- 6th (Manawatu) Mounted Rifles by Auckland Museum, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Baltic Mythology and the Magic Fern Flower

Baltic mythology tells of a magical fern flower that blooms on the summer solstice, promising good fortune and suggesting the presence of buried treasures.

Slavic Folklore: Ferns and Ivan Kupala Night

In Slavic folklore, ferns are believed to bloom during the Ivan Kupala night, with the rare sighting of a ferns’ guaranteeing a lifetime of happiness and riches for the rest of their life. (3)

Finnish Tradition: Fern Seeds and Midsummer Night’s Secrets

Finnish tradition links fern seeds found on Midsummer’s Night to invisibility, guiding to hidden treasures protected by spells. Additionally, ferns in Wicca are believed to possess magical properties. This legend held such sway that it was mentioned in literature, featuring in works by William Shakespeare, Hans Christian Andersen, and Ben Jonson.

Celtic Lore: Ferns, Fairies, and the Invisible Flower

In Celtic stories, ferns, being vibrant green without flowers, have been linked to magic and fairies. Although they seem to lack flowers or seeds, there’s a folk tale of an invisible fern plant only bloomed around the summer solstice. Legend says that seeing this flower grants the gift of fairy sight, allowing one to speak to animals and control the weather.

All Black Invincibles' rugby football jersey by Canterbury NZ
All Black Invincibles’ rugby football jersey by Canterbury NZ by Auckland Museum, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Uses of Ferns and Fiddleheads

Culinary uses

Fiddleheads are young fern leaves before they open up, and you can usually find them only for a few weeks in the spring. Fiddleheads of The Ostrich fern are the best for eating because they taste like asparagus. People like to sauté them with butter and garlic.

There are also other types of ferns, like western sword fern, bracken fern, and lady fern, whose young leaves are edible as fiddleheads. But remember, you should cook them before eating.

Medicinal Uses

Ferns have been used for medicinal purposes in the past. In traditional cultures, ferns alleviate headaches and lower fevers, control bleeding, promote wound healing, and lessen inflammation.

Medicinally, many American groups of people used ferns to alleviate childbirth pain or address digestive problems.

bright green fern
Fern Fronds

Ornamental Plants

Often, the ferns are grown as an ornamental plant, as cut foliage, and as popular houseplants. These varieties include the Boston fern, bird’s nest fern, and staghorn ferns.

Other uses

In southeast Asia, Azolla ferns, although small and dissimilar to typical ferns, function as biological fertilizers in rice paddies due to their nitrogen-fixing ability. Ferns, exemplified by Tectaria macrodonta, exhibit insect resistance, with their genes being transferred to cotton plants to enhance whitefly resistance.

In autumn, ferns are used as an aid in storing apples, thanks to which the apples retain their freshness and taste for longer.

Fern Tattoo Meaning

The meaning of a fern tattoo varies based on cultural and personal interpretations. 

Ferns have survived for millions of years, and their ability to adapt and endure can symbolize resilience in the face of challenges. A fern tattoo may represent inner strength and the ability to overcome obstacles. In addition, the fern is also seen as being motivational, and many have fern tattoos to help them stay focused.

In many cultures, ferns are associated with new life and growth. Getting a fern tattoo can symbolize a fresh start, new beginnings, or personal transformation.

Ferns are a part of the natural world, and a fern tattoo may remind one of one’s connection to nature. It can signify a love for the outdoors, environmental consciousness, or a desire to stay grounded.

Vladka Merva on January 30th, 2024

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