Polish legends: the Fern Flower

 

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Painting “Kwiat paproci” (“Fern Flower”) by artist Antoni Piotrowski (1853-1924), painted around 1900.

Legends about a mythological fern flower are among the most widespread tales in Poland. Acording to Polish folk beliefs, the wild fern, species that normally never bursts into bloom, does bloom with a magickal flower on two special nights each year. This mythical flower appears on the nights of summer solstice and winter solstice, the two transitional nights of the year when the power of the Sun is on its decisive stages.

The legends say that only the fern that grows in the most secluded parts of the forests can bloom with the magickal flower, and sometimes with a magickal fruit as well. It has to be a place far away from the human settlements, where no dog barking, rooster crowing or people talking could be heard. Moreover, most of the descriptions say that the fern flower blooms specifically in uroczyska, a term in the Polish language that describes places in the wild generally connected with magick or with old pre-Christian places of cult.

The fern gives birth to the flower around midnight, and a loud sound described as a crack, a bang, or a thunder follows its birth. The flower shines with a golden, purple or blue glow. It is extremely delicate: blooms only shortly, and dies before the dawn, or lives only less than an hour.

According to the Polish folk legends a person who manages to find the flower will be filled with exceptional supernatural wisdom that would bring happiness to their life, or will be given a great wealth and power. Finding the flower is tricky, not only because of its secluded location. The birth of the Fern Flower is awaited by many mythological creatures from the Polish folklore who are particularly active on the nights of solstices. It could be guarded for example by witches or creatures like bies or czart who would be looking for the power-giving flower as well or just protecting it from the humans’ greed. The passer-byes are intimidated by scary noises or demon laughter.

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“Kwiat paproci” (‘Fern Flower”), illustration by jej.digart.pl
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Fern Flower: artwork by bubug.deviantart.com

Polish folklore gives us many tales about people who were looking for the flower, and many about people who managed to find it. The seekers had to be exceptionally careful, and used protective rites that were described in local tales. For example, people were getting completely naked and girding their body with garlands made of mugwort (herb that is commonly used in protective rites in the Polish folklore). It is also said that the flower should never be picked, but rather delicately shaken down from the fern. It should fall down onto a white linen cloth prepared underneath on the ground, and then quickly wrapped in the linen. It was supposed to be the only way for the flower not to vanish into the thin air while being carried back home.

In the Christianized versions of the legend people were coming to the woods for example with blessed rosaries, or taking a white tablecloth from a church altar.

People were forbidden to look behind their backs when carrying the flower to their houses. At home they were carefully unwrapping it on their home altars (or under holy icons in the Christian Orthodox houses). Then, their home was filled with goodness and happiness, and all their boxes, crates and lockers were filled with golden coins.

Other legends say that the fern flower could be stored and used in many future rites if immediately after picking it a person would hide a petal under their tongue, in their shoes, or in a wound cut deep into their hand. Then, the flower would lead the finder to places of happiness or even give a gift of clairvoyance and abilities of turning invisible.

Many legends claim that the wealth gained by the founder could not be shared with anyone, otherwise all the money and powers would be lost forever. In those versions, finding of the fern flower was associated with a lone journey and denial of close family and friends. The finder was getting lost in a chain of deceptive luck, surrounding themselves with wealth and false friends. In the end, their conscience was awaken and they were coming back home – only to find their parents and siblings not in their old crumbling cottage, but on a cemetery. The moral of those stories was that a person could not be entirely happy without thier close community.

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Illustration by artist Maria Orłowska-Gabryś (1925-1988) for a children book about the Fern Flower legend.
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Illustration depicting a Fern Flower drawn by artist Jan Marcin Szancer (1902-1973) for a book “Konik Garbusek”.

In many local tales the Fern Flower was found also by accident. In one of the tales I know from my childhood, a young shepherd lost his cow that made a turn into the woods. Even though it was already getting dark, he went into the forest to find it, and wandered around for long hours. He was so worried about the animal that he didn’t even notice the magickal flower appearing from the ground and stumped on it unknowingly. Suddenly, great visions filled his mind. He saw treasures hidden in the woods and paths leading to them, and of course – a vision of his beloved cow was there too. Happy and relieved, he went after the cow and brought the scared animal home. Then, exhausted, he decided to take some sleep and go treasure hunting on the next day. But when he went to his bed, a Fern Flower petal that got stuck under a collar of his shoe fell down to the floor, faded, and lost all its powers. The visions disappeard, and the boy’s mind went blank – he forgot all the details he saw in the visions overnight. However, he wasn’t cut up about it. In the end, he never intended to find the flower for the treasures, and his greatest worry was over – the cow was back and safe in the barn. Maybe the enlightement the Fern Flower gave him for the brief moment made him realise that the treasures would not make him truly happy in the end.

A Fern Flower is an important element of Polish mythology and folk culture. In the real life ‘looking for a fern flower’ was often a pretext for young people to hide together in the woods and spend some romantic time alone on the night of the summer solstice when the rural communities were celebrating a feast of old-Slavic origins called Kupalnocka, Sobótki or Wianki in the Polish language. The folk tales about the Fern Flower were also an inspiration for many Polish writers and poets, and is often mentioned along the lines describing the magickal night of summer solstice.

Zakwita w puszczach dziwny kwiat paproci,
Na jedną chwilę w tajemniczym cieniu
Cały świat blaskiem czarodziejskim złoci,
Lecz można tylko dotknąć go w marzeniu.

Adam Asnyk

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Painting “Kwiat paproci” (“Fern Flower”) by artist Witold Pruszkowski (1846-1896), painted in 1875.
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Looking for a Fern Flower: illustration for a children book by artist Elżbieta Krygowska-Butlewska.


General informations about the fern flower in Slavic folklore: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fern_flower

My sources and online articles to read more in Polish:

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