The Tongue of a Hart

The Tongue of a Hart

Les Line
Published: 08/06/2008

There's an historic inn called the White Hart in a close-by village with a crackled oil painting of a magnificent albino antlered animal in the lobby. Still, I wonder how many guests, diners, or imbibers in its cozy tap room with pine-plank tables grasp the meaning of the venerable establishment's name. The word "hart" is a centuries-old and largely disused British term for a male red deer, in particular one that is mature enough to carry an impressive rack of horns. (The female was called a "hind.") These days, however, you're more likely to hear "stag" when pub talk over a pint or two turns to an imposing specimen of Cervus elaphus, the very same regal creature that we call an elk on this side of the big pond.

I bring this up because the hart's-tongue fern that I planted next to a big chunk of quartzite in my wild garden is doing nicely, thank you, though it has grown slowly and is dwarfed by the fronds of lady ferns, wood ferns, cinnamon ferns and Christmas ferns that share the dappled shade beneath a paper birch. Decidedly unfernlike in appearance, this species has long, shiny evergreen leaves with wavy edges. Now, I have never examined the tongue of a hart or an American elk, for that matter. But the Peterson Field Guide to the Ferns assures me that they do indeed "simulate" a deer's tongue. And in case you're wondering, we don't call it an elk's-tongue fern because the same plant (albeit a slightly different variety) occurs in the British Isles and our cousins named it first.

Hart's-tongue fern. (By Linda Swartz/U.S. Forest Service)

The American hart's-tongue fern is probably the rarest of the 67 or so species of ferns in the central and northeastern states and has been on the federal threatened list since 1993. It is found in only five widely scattered states--Michigan, New York, Maryland, Tennessee and Alabama--plus a few locations in Ontario. And then only in tiny, isolated colonies, for this fern species requires humid, deeply shaded, mature deciduous forests and typically grows in fissures in mossy limestone boulders and ledges. About 90 percent of known colonies occur in central New York.

Hart's-tongue fern fronds.  (From Wikipedia)

Thus, as a U.S. Forest Service web page enthuses, "Hart's-tongue fern is a rare treat for the eyes; it is so green, glossy and large that it defiies reality. The elegant, smooth, unserrated fronds are 8 to 16 inches in length and look decidedly tropical and incongruous in the northern forest they inhabit." The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, meanwhile, relates that quarrying, and logging along with residential and ski-resort development have all but destroyed these plants and their habitat. In short, if you are fortunate enough to find a hart's-tongue fern in the wild, admire and photograph it but don't collect it. I hasten to add that my plant came from a nursery.