Looking back, I realise now that I was exploited as a child. My enthusiasm for nature was (and still is) boundless, and my energy similarly limitless. It was with great excitement that I’d join my father on his many field trips with students, or the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland (BSBI) meetings along the coast of Anglesey in search of plants. Being considerably closer to the ground, and having sharper eyes than most, gave me a distinct advantage, and I was frequently set the challenge of locating certain plants whilst Dad disseminated a seemingly endless supply of fascinating facts about the ecology of the habitats we were in. And what child can resist the challenge of finding something? It was always with great pride that I’d be able to return with the location of a Dune Helleborine Epipactis dunensis, Bee Orchid Ophrys apifera, or a microscopic Lesser Clubmoss Selaginella selaginoides , but one plant stood out as always posing the biggest challenge to locate; the Moonwort Botrychium lunaria.
Twenty-five years later, and with my eyes significantly further from the ground than most, the thrill of finding such an amazing little plant is still as strong as it was. This time of year is perfect for finding those tiny fronds slowly unfolding from the short-cropped turf to reveal a tiny bunch of ‘grapes’, as Dad called it. This tiny bunch of grapes is in fact the sporangia of the plant, and the fertile part of the leaf. It is this that gives it its scientific name Botrychium deriving from Botryo – the Latin for a bunch of grapes, thus Botrychium a little bunch of grapes. The fringe of the leaves is said to resemble a half-moon, and ‘wort’ for a plant of use, hence its English name. This tiny fern is ancient in its lineage, lacking root hairs, instead surviving through a mycorrhizal association.
For something so small and seemingly insignificant it has remarkable worth placed on it. Alchemists and herbalists both desired its tiny leaves believing that it was capable of turning lead into gold, whilst it was believed that by moonlight, this plant was capable of opening locks and un-shoeing horses who trod upon it. Witches are even said to have collected this plant by moonlight for use in spells. Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th century Herbalist spoke highly of the plant stating:
“The Moon owns the herb. Moonwort is cold and drying more than adder’s tongue, and is therefore held to be more available for all wounds both inward and outward. The leaves boiled in red wine, and drank, stay the immoderate flux of women’s courses, and the whites. It also stays bleeding, vomiting, and other fluxes. It helps all blows and bruises, and to consolidate all fractures and dislocations. It is good for ruptures, but is chiefly used, by most with other herbs, to make oils or balsams to heal fresh or green wounds (as I said before) either inward or outward, for which it is excellently good.
Moonwort is a herb which (they say) will open locks, and unshoe such horses as tread upon it. This some laugh to scorn, and those no small fools neither; but country people, that I know, call it Unshoe the Horse. Besides I have heard commanders say, that on White Down in Devonshire, near Tiverton, there were found thirty horse shoes, pulled off from the feet of the Earl of Essex’s horses, being there drawn up in a body, many of them being but newly shod, and no reason known, which caused much admiration: the herb described usually grows upon heaths.”
In the UK, Moonwort has declined having been lost from much of its former southern English range (as a result of pasture ‘improvements’ and scrub encroachment). It is still widespread in Scotland, northern England (though declining), and Wales where it can be found on sand dunes, quarries, and rock ledges, open woodland and even mountain tops up to 1065m on Ben Lawers, preferring well-drained soils. The BSBI distribution map can be viewed here.
So next time you’re out in suitable habitat I challenge you to locate this brilliant little fern and enjoy it for its rich historical significance and its understated beauty.