Herb: Sensitive Fern

Latin name: Onoclea sensibilis

Family: Onocleaceae

Medicinal use of Sensitive Fern:

Sensitive fern has not been much used medicinally. However, one native North American Indian tribe did employ it quite widely to treat various women's complaints. An infusion of the root has been used to treat the pain following childbirth. A decoction of the roots has been used to treat fertility in women, to give strength after childbirth, to start the menses, and to treat swellings, cramps and a sore abdomen. An infusion of the whole plant, or just the root, has been applied externally to full breasts where the milk will not flow. A poultice of the plant is used in treating deep cuts.

Description of the plant:


50 cm
(1 foot)

Habitat of the herb:

Wet grassy places, open damp woodland and occasionally on open hillsides.

Edible parts of Sensitive Fern:

The young uncurled leaves, often called "fiddleheads", are used as a vegetable or eaten raw. Remove the brown scales and then steam the leaves in very little water. The young shoots have been sold as delicacies in Asian markets. Root - cooked. A famine food, it is only used in times of scarcity.

Other uses of the herb:

A decoction of the plant has been used as a hair wash to help prevent baldness. This species has a freely-running rootstock and makes an effective ground cover plant. Although it is deciduous its decomposing ferns make an effective weed suppressing mulch. Plants should be spaced about 1 metre apart each way.

Propagation of Sensitive Fern:

Spores - best sown as soon as they are ripe on the surface of a humus-rich sterilized soil. Keep the compost moist, preferably by putting a plastic bag over the pot. Pot on small clumps of plantlets as soon as they are large enough to handle and keep them in humid conditions until they are well established. Do not plant outside until the ferns are at least 2 years old. Division of underground rhizomes, October to March.

Cultivation of the herb:

Wet grassy places, open damp woodland and occasionally on open hillsides.

Known hazards of Onoclea sensibilis:

Although we have found no reports of toxicity for this species, a number of ferns contain carcinogens so some caution is advisable. Many ferns also contain thiaminase, an enzyme that robs the body of its vitamin B complex. In small quantities this enzyme will do no harm to people eating an adequate diet that is rich in vitamin B, though large quantities can cause severe health problems. The enzyme is destroyed by heat or thorough drying, so cooking the plant will remove the thiaminase.

Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.