Adiantum capillus-veneris

Family : Pteridaceae

Text © Eugenio Zanotti


English translation by Mario Beltramini


Adiantum capillus-veneris is the only European fern belonging to this genus. It grows on the humid rocks, mainly calcareous, in caves, old walls, sources and resurgences edges, careless of the drops of water © Giuseppe Mazza

Adiantum capillus-veneris is the only European fern belonging to this genus. It grows on the humid rocks, mainly calcareous, in caves, old walls, sources and resurgences edges, careless of the drops of water © Giuseppe Mazza

The taxonomical division of the pteridophytes (Pteridophyta) includes cryptogamic vascular plants known as ferns, horsetails, clubmosses and spikemosses, all plants of very old origin, plants with no flowers that reproduce by means of spores.

More than 20 genera belong to the great family of the Pteridaceae amongst which the genus Adiantum, formed by about 200 species of ferns mainly native to the warm regions, mostly of the American continent, others of the temperate ones.

The only species of this genus present at the spontaneous state in Europe is the well known Venus hair fern or Black maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris L. 1753), a very elegant and delicate fern distributed in the entire tropical belt of Eurasia, Africa and of America (pantropical).

The European range of this species is linked to the Mediterranean climates and is present also along the Atlantic coasts washed by the Gulf Stream. Moreover, in Europe are reported Adiantum hispidum (of the tropical zones and of subtropical Australia) and Adiantum raddianum (of eastern South America) cultivated as ornament and occasionally gone wild.

The name of the genus gets its origin from the Greek term “adíanton”, formed by “a”, without, and “diáino”, I wash, hence “I don’t get wet” referred to the leaves that, immersed and extracted from the water do not get wet (water-repellent). The name of the species stands for hair, “capìllus” and from the genitive “Venus”, Venus, because she, after the Roman mythology, when did get out from the sea had her hair dry.

Perennial herb with short rhizome, thin and creeping, blackish due to thick and dark squamosity covering it, from which develop glabrous fronds, soft, ovate-oblong, pendulous, more or less persistent, 10-to 30 up to 50 (<60) cm usually 2-3 pinnatisect on black capillary peduncles or brown-dark reddish, usually flexuous, petiole and rachis also black and glossy. Pinnules of a nice bright green, glabrous, ovate-cuneate, with thin dichotomic nervations, flagellate or rhomboidal (0,5) 1-2 (3) cm, tenuous, with the extremities folded forming a cartilaginous pseudo-indusium to protect the short rectangular or reniform sori, perpendicular to the margin of the lobe.

The leaves, hydro-repellent, do not get wet, like Venus' hairs when she got out from the sea © G. Mazza

The leaves, hydro-repellent, do not get wet, like Venus’ hairs when she got out from the sea © G. Mazza

The sporification takes place practically all the year but is mainly concentrated from June to August; spores (38) 40-44 (48) microns, finely granular on the surface. Habitat: ombrophilous, hygrophilous and thermophilous species growing on the stillicidious rocks, wet crags especially calcareous, marls and sandstones, wells, caves, springs, old walls, edges of resurgences, ditches and their bridges, from the plain up to 1500 metres of altitude.

About this the Italian teacher Pierina Boranga did write on one of the little volumes of the splendid series “The nature and the child” (1951):

“It prefers the position which allows to enjoy some tenuous sun ray, but often lives also in that bland greenish light of the shady walls and of the humid caves. It does not matter if its branchlets and its tiny and pretty fan-shaped leaves, supported by thin glossy and black petioles, thin like hairs, will have to keep always moving under the dripping of the droplets. The small stalks, even if thin, are resistant and elastic and the leaflets have the property of not getting wet. On the contrary, the continuous movement adds grace to these elegant soft small branchlets, which ennoble the stones, granting the locations where it grows a note of Arcadian beauty”.

Since ancient times, this fern did not go unnoticed, on the contrary, seen its preference for the poorly luminous locations was devoted to Pluto; Theocritus reported that along with other plants it grew close to the source where one of the Argonauts he took the water for his vessel.

The branchlets of the Venus hair fern, which are to be collected in summer, contain various active principles: tannins, adiantone and other phenols derived of the kaempferol, flavonoids, triterpenoid saponosides, proanthocyanidins, sulphurate esters of the hydroxycinnamic acid, the bitter principle capillarine, gums, mucilages, sugars, gallic acid, alycic acids and traces of an essential oil that confer the preparations (mainly infusion, syrup and tincture) anti-inflammatory, aromatic, galactagogue, astringent, biliary fluidizing, decongestant, diaphoretic, emollient, expectorant, digestive, etc., properties.

The Venus hair fern is recommended in the various ailments of the airways as fluidizer and as lenitive, in the voice decreases (the great tenor Caruso, like other great opera singers, gargled with Venus hair fern infusions before going on stage), in the difficult digestions, as blood depurative, internal antihaemorrhagic and useful for reducing the urge to drink alcohol and smoke.

 The sporification occurs almost all the year, mostly between June and August © Giuseppe Mazza

The sporification occurs almost all the year, mostly between June and August © Giuseppe Mazza

For external use, its decoction has a stimulating action on the hair follicles and is therefore useful for fighting the dandruff and the loss of hair. One more confirmation of the doctrine of the signatures? The belief after which the good Lord had placed a trace in the look and in the characteristics of the plants to indicate the men what was their use. Thus, the White willow (Salix alba), that grows with the feet in the water, treated the cold diseases, the fruits of the Walnut (Juglans regia), due to their shape, the brain and the Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis), due to the patterns on the leaves, the lungs. In the past, the Venus hair fern entered also some complicate preparations intended for the treatment of paralysis, tremors, melancholies, like in the very old Opopyra of the Saints Cosmas and Damian and of Mesue.

Thanks to the elegant beauty of this fern, as well as that of other exotic congeners (Adiantum caudatum, A. rubellum, A. pedatum, A. venustum, ecc.) it is widely cultivated especially as indoor plant; it is, however, a delicate and demanding species that requires diffused light and does not love the direct sun rays and the cold air currents; the best temperature for its cultivation is of 14-18 °C. The substratum must be formed by neutral wood soil or slightly calcareous, enriched of peat, well drained and not too rich of nutrients; the waterings must be frequent but not abundant n the warm months and must be reduced during the winter time. It usually reproduces by subdivision of tufts in March-April.

Preparations: Infusion

A teaspoon of fresh branchlets in a pot of warm water, to filter and add some honey, 2-3 cups per day for bronchitis, dry coughs. By adding some black tea and some milk you can get a tasty and healthy tisane known as “Bavarian”.


640 grams of sugar added to an already filtered infusion, prepared with 340 grams of water and 20 grams of fresh branchlets. For the children with bronchitis and dry coughs. Two spoons three times per day.

Synonyms: Adiantum coriandrifolium Lam. (1779); Adantum fontanum Salisb. (1796); Adiantum capillus Sw. (1801); Adiantum formosum R. Br. (1810); Adiantum africanum R. Br. (1818); Adiantum schaffneri E. Fourn. (1880); Adiantum pseudocapillus Fée (1850-1852); Adiantum paradiseae Baker (1889); Adiantum capillus-veneris var. fissum Christ (1900); Adiantum modestum Underw. (1901); Adiantum michelii Christ (1910); Adiantum remyanum Esp. Bustos (1936); Adiantum capillus-veneris var. laciniatum Christ ex Tardieu & C. Chr. (1940); Adiantum capillus-veneris fo. rimicola (Sloss.) (1950); Adiantum capillus-veneris var. modestum (Underw.) Fernald (1950); Adiantum capillus-veneris var. protrusum Fernald (1950); Adiantum capillus-veneris fo. dissectum (M. Martens & Galeotti) Ching (1957); Adiantum capillus-veneris fo. fissum (Christ) Ching (1957).