Gardeners have long known about the value of male fern as a landscaping plant, but there’s a lot more to learn about this interesting botanical specimen. Also known as Dryopteris filix-mas in horticultural circles, this woodland groundcover native to most of the Northern hemisphere has been used for centuries as an herbal remedy for parasitic problems, to manage excessive bleeding, and even to cure bedwetting. Although still commonly found in garden centers, male fern’s considerable toxicity and the associated risks have made it an unpopular option as an herbal treatment.
Male fern is a popular landscape choice because of its ability to thrive in shadier conditions, where its fine fronds add textural contrast and interest to the broad, coarse foliage more common in low-light plantings. Somewhat more tolerant of sun than many other types of ferns, Dryopteris filix-mas is also a good choice for border plantings. Dryopteris means oak fern in Greek, referring to the plant’s preferred woodsy habitat, with filix also meaning fern and mas meaning male. It was originally thought to be the partner of lady fern, thus the gender-specific taxonomy for this perennial plant. Like all ferns, this pre-historic plant does not produce flowers and reproduces via spores instead of seeds.
Historically, male fern’s primary use as an herbal remedy has been to treat tapeworms and other intestinal parasites. Phloroglucinol, a chemical found in male fern’s root, acts to paralyze the parasite, and then the patient takes a purgative to both expel the parasite and the herb itself. To make the cure, the root was both finely chopped and then steeped in hot water or an extract was made using oil. Although touted as an effective anthelmintic since Ancient Greece, the ease with which one can cause permanent damage, such as blindness, or lethally overdose, especially in children, the elderly, and the infirm, has made this a less than practical remedy.
Male fern was also used as a treatment for nosebleeds, excessive menstrual bleeding, and to manage wounds and tumors. Native Americans used male fern to ease childbirth and to increase breast milk. Sleeping on the fronds was a folk remedy for rheumatism and was thought to both keep away insects and cure bedwetting in children.
Male fern is a dangerous and potentially deadly plant. Beyond its use as an anthelmintic, there is no scientific evidence that male fern has any other health benefits, and even though male fern has been proven effective in killing intestinal parasites, the severity of the side effects makes the remedy not worth the risk, potentially doing more damage than the parasites themselves. Modern science has produced safer, effective alternatives, making the use of male fern as an herbal remedy obsolete. Ingesting male fern can result in breathing difficulty, convulsions, heart and lung failure, diarrhea, coma, and eye disorders that include both temporary and permanent blindness. Ingesting male fern can also result in death. The effect of this herb varies from person to person, so anecdotal evidence of safe ingestion is not reliable. Those with intestinal or stomach conditions are at high risk for side effects, but even an otherwise healthy person can suffer serious harm. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should absolutely not take male fern.