The tree ferns (families Dicksoniaceae and Cyatheaceae) are the only living ferns of any commercial importance other than as ornamentals. In the tropics the trunks are employed in construction, and the starchy pith was formerly eaten by the Maoris and other native groups. The dense root systems are widely used as a substrate for growing orchids; many populations of tree ferns are destroyed for this purpose. Dense golden hair covers the base of the leaf stalks and buds in many species and is exported as "pulu" for mattress and pillow stuffing and for packing material. A large number of fern species are used medicinally by local populations, especially in the tropics.
Numerous superstitions have arisen about ferns. The mythical "fern seeds," believed to be produced by the male fern ( Dryopteris filix-mas ) and by the lady fern (formerly a name for the common bracken but now applied to Athyrium filix-femina ), were reputed to create invisibility if eaten by a member of the appropriate sex. The bracken was also considered protection against goblins and witches because the broken stem and root appear to be marked with a C, symbolizing Christ.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.