The woods behind Kennack Sands are a great spot for ferns, including the distinctive and evergreen Hart’s-tongue.

Photo: Amanda Scott

Scientific name: Asplenium scolopendrium

Other common names: Hind’s-tongue, Burnt Weed, Horse Tongue, Buttonhole

Conservation status: Widespread

What to look for:

  • Appearance: Rosette of undivided tongue-shaped fronds, each tapering to a point. The distinctive narrow sori are arranged in two rows, one row each side of the central stem.
  • Height: Individual fronds are 10 to 60 cm in length.
  • Where: Widespread, other than the mountains of Scotland. Found in woods and hedgerows, walls and rocks, preferring shady conditions and calcareous soils.
  • When: All year.
  • Habit: Upright.

The Hart’s-tongue fern is instantly recognisable, although it’s not always identified as a fern by the uninitiated. This is the only fern of northwestern Europe, including the UK, that has undivided leaves, and so it doesn’t look much like a fern at first glance. A quick inspection, however, reveals the two rows of sori (the structures containing the spores) on the underside of each leaf. An evergreen perennial, it can be found illuminating winter woodlands and shady places when its glossy green leaves catch the low sunlight. It is common across much of the UK, apart from the furthest north.

Did you know…?

…The species name, scolopendrium, is from the Latin for centipede. This is a reference to the pattern of the sori (structures containing the spores) in rows either side of the stem, looking a little like a centipede’s legs.

…Hart’s-tongue was used in the nineteenth century as a tonic for ailments of the spleen. Another use in rural areas was to make an ointment to treat burns.

More information and references:

Phillips, R., 1980. Grasses, Ferns, Mosses and Lichens of Great Britain and Ireland. Pan Books, London.

Rose, F., 1989. Colour Identification Guide to the Grasses, Sedges, Rushes and Ferns of the British Isles and North-western Europe. Viking, London.

Published: December 2015
Author: Amanda Scott
Photos: Unfurling fronds – Steve Townsend; leaves – Amanda Scott