The remains of a medieval skeleton have provided the first physical evidence that a fern plant could have been used for medical purposes in cases such as alopecia, dandruff and kidney stones.
The skeleton of a man between the ages of 21 and 30 who was buried in the medieval necropolis of Can Reiners on the Spanish Balearic Islands had traces of starch granules consistent with cereal plants such as wheat and rye, and significantly a collection of cells into which spores are formed at the bottom of a fern leaf.
There is no evidence that the fern leaf was part of the human diet at any point in the recorded history, but there are written descriptions from the first century AD that suggest that the fern leaf was not used to treat the symptoms of a particular alleviate life-threatening conditions.
Folk medical stories collected in various books indicate that the fern was used throughout Europe. However, this is the first time that evidence has been found in human remains and the first time that a particular fern species has been identified.
Dr. Elena Fiorin, of the Department of Archeology, University of York, said: "By analyzing the tartar of the skeleton, which we believe to date from the ninth or tenth century, we have found that the cells are from a fern plant, Asplenium trichomanes , a common species that grows in rocky areas worldwide.
"These ferns have been used by herbologists, surgeons, doctors and other healers throughout Europe for centuries. So far, however, we only had written documents describing their use.
"The findings from the skeletal remains of this skeleton show how much information we can get from dental calculus analysis. It shows that communities in Spain knew about the medicinal properties of some plants and know how to administer them to achieve the desired results. "
Records show that a liquid infusion was made by pouring water into fresh or dried fern leaves, and sometimes the brew was flavored with orange blossom or sweetened sugar or honey.
Herbal texts show that the plants were used exclusively for the cure of certain diseases, mostly as dandruff, colds, kidney stones and alopecia. There is also evidence that the plant is used to stimulate menstrual flow in women.
Although it is not possible to find out from the young man's skeletal remains what he was being treated for, he probably drank a fern leaf infusion to possibly cure a condition of the skin, the urinary tract, or as a decongestant.
Dr. Fiorin said, "Research shows the use of ferns as medicinal plants in the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages. We now have the potential to examine other tooth remnants for similar properties that could tell us more about the use of medicinal herbs in the past.
"These ferns have been used in Europe and are still used today to cure a variety of diseases, and archaeological reports allow us to see how people have used the natural environment to support health care throughout our development."
The research is published in International Journal of Osteoarchaeology,