Ferns are a popular choice for shade gardens and houseplants. Their delicate divided leaves store spores, which are their method of propagation. Botanists have identified 10,400 species of ferns in the plant division Pteridophyta. These varieties provide gardeners an endless selection of plants for gardening. In addition to gardening, researchers have discovered other uses for ferns, which may surprise you.

The underside of fern leaves hold spores for reproduction.

Medicinal Uses

Herbalists use ferns for healing and medicinal purposes.

Homeopathic practitioners from many countries, including the U.S., have found medicinal uses for ferns. The oil from the roots of the male fern plant can be used to expel parasitic worms in humans. Available in liquid extract, powder and pill form, veterinarians offer animals the powdered form mixed with honey to treat intestinal parasites. Black spleenwort can be used to treat diarrhea and other bowel disorders. The maidenhair fern functions as a remedy for lung problems. In France, a cough syrup is made from the maidenhair's fronds and roots called Sirop de Capillaire. The roots of the royal fern can help cure jaundice during its early stages. In addition, the roots promote healing when applied to wounds.

Ferns as Food

The newly formed croziers of some ferns are a delicacy.

The roots, or rhizomes, of many fern species are eaten as a rich source of carbohydrates. The bracken fern, although carcinogenic, can be used in place of hops to ferment beer; Japanese eat large quantities of bracken fern and also have the highest incidences of stomach cancer in the world, according to The New York Botanical Garden. The crozier, or curled fiddlehead, can be added to salads in its raw form. In addition, it can be boiled in salt water to remove hairs and scales until soft enough to eat. To some, croziers are considered a delicacy. The fragrant woodfern can be dried and made into herbal tea. Whether cooked, raw, or used in a beverage, ferns have many culinary purposes.

Helping the Environment

Asian rice farmers use aquatic ferns as fertilizer.

In nature, ferns can offer characteristics that benefit the soil and environment. In addition to adding a soft elegance to a garden landscape, ferns minimize soil erosion and promote stabilization. The root system of a fern is typically a long, thin, horizontal web of rhizomes beneath the soil's surface. This weblike structure adds stability and moisture to the soil, preventing erosion. Across Asia, farmers also use the Azolla fern, an aquatic species, as "green" manure to fertilize rice crops.