In many places, the mid-summer’s night on June 21st, the longest day (and the shortest night) of the year, is celebrated in many ways. In some countries, people make flower wreaths, but in some others, there is a peculiar tradition: searching for the fern flower.
What is the fern flower legend?
It is said that whoever finds the fern flower on that day, will get the gift of eternal life, youth and wealth. It is said that the flower shines in the dark but can only be found on that particular night, and is usually well-hidden in a secluded location within the forest. Moreover, a person looking for the fern flower might have to face mythical creatures such as witches, demons, or even devils. That’s why people prepared well when on the quest to find the fern flowers, for example by decorating their bodies with mugwort, or, in some versions, taking a rosary or a cross with them.
Like in many myths and legend, there is also the element of not being allowed to look back when taking the fern flower home. Last but not least, in some versions, the wealth that the fern flower provided could not be shared with anyone, which reminds me of another legend from Warsaw, called the Golden Duck.
In the fern flower legend, a person – most often a naughty boy – is gifted immense wealth. He spends it entirely on himself but then realizes that not being able to help others is making hi miserable. In the Fern flower legend, the boy can’t help his parents and in the Golden Dutch legend, he can’t give money to a poor old soldier. Severals versions of the fern flower story say the boy realizes that nothing is more important than his bond with other people and the feeling of community he gains from them. While other legends tell how he is swallowed whole and never seen again.
So, what does the legend say?
Long ago, there was a young boy called Jack. He was a very curious boy, always getting into trouble. Once, he heard the story of the fern flower, and vowed to find it. The first two times he went into the forest in search of the flower, he found it but failed to fetch it because he was too late and the shortest night of the year was already over.
When the third time arrived, Jack put on his best clothes and once again went into the forest. This time, his search was successful and he was able to retrieve the flower even though it burned his fingers. And, by the magic of the fern flower, all his wishes were fulfilled. He was now ruler of a big kingdom, had a big palace and many servants. Only his family was missing.
This made him sad because he was forbidden to share his wealth with anyone. All the gold he had, he had to spend on himself. If he did not, he would go back to being poor.
One day, when he missed his family too much, he decided to see his mother. But she didn’t recognize him. He tried that two more time. The second time, Jack found out that his father was gone and his mother was very sick. But when he tried to help her by giving her some gold, he remembered that it would all disappear and he would be poor again.
Burdened by his sadness of not being able to help his family, Jack became sick and sad, realizing that his wealth was useless if he couldn’t share it with his family. The third time he tried to go to his village, he found out that his parents had died. In the end, Jack is then swallowed whole into the ground and never seen again. As for the fern flower, no one else was able to find it either.
Does the fern flower really exist?
The truth is that ferns do not have flowers, although there might be some truth to this tale. After all, many flowering plants look very similar to ferns, and some of them do have flowers. There are also so- called “flowering ferns.” Moreover, daphne and horsetail flowers look like they could be the source of the legend.
Where does this tradition come from?
The legend of the fern flower seems to have originated in Eastern and Northern Europe and it is celebrated in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Sweden, and Finland where it’s usually celebrated on summer solstice (between June 19th and June 25th ). However, in Russia, Poland, and Ukraine, this tradition takes place on the Eve of the Ivan Kupala Night, which falls on the 6-7 July (if we use the Gregorian calendar) or 23-24th of June by using the Julian calendar.
There was no person named Ivan Kupala. Kupala Night is a Slavic celebration of ancient pagan origin marking the end of the summer solstice and the beginning of the harvest (midsummer). This Slavic tradition (Kupala) was combined with a Christian tradition as St John’s day fell on June 23rd. It’s also associated with water, fertility and purification, and in many parts of eastern Europe, children pour water over pretty much everyone.
The shortest night of the year is riddled with magic, the supernatural, and mystery. So, go into the forest, and look for the fern flower, but if you find it, leave it be!
Learn more about Midsummer Day
“The Longest Day: Celebrating the Summer Solstice,” by Wendy Pfeffer. Learn about people in different cultures celebrating the Summer Solstice from ancient times (such as Mesopotamia, the Greeks, and the Medicine Mountain in Wyoming), through the Middle Ages in Lithuania, Bohemia, and Germanic tribes… and even touching on current celebrations in the Arctic Circle, Sweden, and Alaska.
Throw a Summer Solstice Party, with recipes, and science and cultural activities!