Fern plant infusion may have kept the doctor away in Medieval Europe

November 5, 2018 by Samantha Martin, University of York
Fern plant infusion keeps the doctor away in Medieval Europe
Asplenium trichomanes is a common species that grows in rocky areas worldwide. Credit: University of York

The remains of a medieval skeleton has shown the first physical evidence that a fern plant could have been used for medicinal purposes in cases such as alopecia, dandruff and kidney stones.

The skeleton of a male aged between 21 and 30 years found buried in the medieval necropolis of Can Reiners on the Spanish Balearic Islands, had traces of starch grains consistent with cereal , such as wheat and rye, and significantly, a collection of cells in which spores are formed from the underside of a fern leaf.

There is no evidence to suggest that the fern leaf was part of human diets at any point in recorded history, but there are written descriptions dating as far back as the first century AD that suggest the fern leaf was used to alleviate the symptoms of particular non-life-threatening conditions.

Folk medicine stories collected in various books suggest that the fern was used across Europe, but this is the first time any evidence has been found in actual human remains and the first time the particular species of fern has been identified.

Dr. Elena Fiorin, from the University of York's Department of Archaeology, said: "Through analysis of the dental calculus of the skeleton, which we believe dates back to the ninth or 10th century, we were able to determine that the cells were from fern plant, asplenium trichomanes, a common species that grows in rocky areas worldwide.

"These ferns have been used by herbalists, surgeons, doctors, and other healers for centuries across Europe, but until now we have only had written documents that describe their use.

"The finding from the dental remains of this skeleton show just how much information we can get from analysis. It demonstrates that in this region of Spain, communities were aware of the medicinal properties of some plants and how to administer them to get the desired result."

Fern plant infusion keeps the doctor away in Medieval Europe
The skeleton was a male aged between 21 and 30 years of age. Credit: University of York
Liquid research

Records show that a liquid infusion was made by pouring water into fresh or dried fern leaves, and sometimes the concoction was flavoured with orange flowers or sweetened sugar or honey.

Herbal texts show that the plants were exclusively used to cure particular diseases, most commonly what we would now recognise as dandruff, a common cold, , and alopecia. There is also reference to the plant being used to stimulate menstrual flow in women.

Although there is no way of telling from the skeletal remains of the young male what he was treated for, it is likely he drank a leaf infusion to potentially cure a condition of the skin, urinary tract, or as a decongestant.

Medicinal herbs

Dr. Fiorin said: "The research demonstrates the use of ferns as healing plants in the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages. We now have the potential to look at other dental remains for similar properties that might tell us more about the use of in the past.

"These ferns were employed, and are still used in Europe today, to cure a variety of diseases and through the archaeological record we can start to see how human beings have used the natural environment to assist in healthcare throughout our evolution."

Explore further: After 60 million years apart, two fern genera form hybrid in the mountains of France

More information: Elena Fiorin et al. Ferns as healing plants in medieval Mallorca, Spain? Evidence from human dental calculus, International Journal of Osteoarchaeology (2018). DOI: 10.1002/oa.2718

Related Stories

Fern-tastic! Crowdfunded fern genomes published

July 2, 2018

On July 17, 2014, the world decided it wanted to learn the genomic secrets hidden in the beautiful little, floating water fern, Azolla filiculoides. Not only did they want to know, but they paid for it too—a whopping $22,160 ...

Recommended for you

Rare fossil bird deepens mystery of avian extinctions

November 13, 2018

During the late Cretaceous period, more than 65 million years ago, birds belonging to hundreds of different species flitted around the dinosaurs and through the forests as abundantly as they flit about our woods and fields ...

Violent crime rates rise in warmer winters

November 13, 2018

As global temperatures climb, warmer winters in parts of the country may set the scene for higher rates of violent crimes such as assault and robbery, according to a new CIRES study.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.