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The legendary fern flower – an old Slavic object of desire, the cult of which has been passed down from generation to generation and which has inspired many folk customs, mainly those connected with the Kupala Night – may in fact be a gametophyte or a cluster of spore-bearing leaves of various fern species.
The fern flower, or perun flower, is a legendary object of desire in Slavic beliefs, blooming only once a year – on the night of the summer solstice, or Kupala Night. This time marked the beginning of summer. It was celebrated with dancing, singing, burning magical herbs, and traditional games. Young boys jumped over fires and doused themselves with water, while girls gathered herbs and threw garlands into the water. Together, they would scare away mythical witches, burn bonfires and search for the fern flower. It was supposed to bring wealth and prosperity to its finder, but no one ever found it.
Although everyone knew that the search for the fern flower was just a game and that it was a myth, scientists have identified several plant species and structures that may fit the description known from folk beliefs.
W. Szafer Institute of Botany, Polish Academy of Sciences cited the example of Seweryn Udziela, a 19th century ethnographer, researcher and populariser of Lesser Poland folklore, who devoted a separate page to the fern flower in his ‘Herbarium’.
The researcher included a legend on a page entitled ‘Filices – ferns’, accompanied by a photograph of a fern leaf (Dryopteris filix-mas (L.) Schott). Next to it he made the following entry: “It blooms at midnight on the eve of St John the Baptist from 23 to 24 June. The flower is small, shining, like a star and only showing for one moment. Whoever possesses it can see all the treasures hidden in the ground and retrieve them. However, the fern flower is difficult to obtain, as it is defended by evil spirits”. – stated the institute on its website.
The fern is a very common species in Polish forests. From a botanical point of view, ferns, as spore-bearing plants, do not have flowers and use the spores produced in their spores for reproduction. However, in their development cycle, there are successive generations of sporophyte and gametophyte (forewing). The former are asexual, the latter sexual, forming haploid gametes (male and female) which, when fused, produce a diploid zygote. Gametophytes sometimes form distinctive, pleomorphic or tuberous structures that could theoretically be considered a primitive flower.
However, there are ferns that fit this much better. This is because some species of these plants produce showy spore-bearing leaves (spikes), called sporophylls, which gather into something like flower clusters. One such species is the royal longhorn. It has very large, distinctive spore-bearing spikes growing at the ends of the leaves and resembling goldenrod inflorescences.
Further candidates for the fern flower may be the various species of susceptibles, e.g. moonflower, lanceolate, marunculus, etc., as well as epiphytes. Their leaves form into fleshy, beautiful spikes, sometimes even growing from a long stalk, making them appear even more like a separate structure from the leaf. Also noteworthy is the ostrich plume, in the central part of which grow abundant brown spore-bearing leaves, clearly separated from the rest of the plant.
An additional curiosity is that scientists assume that spore-bearing spikes may be the evolutionary ‘ancestors’ of true flowers.