Hay-Scented Fern and Lessons from Childhood

Hay Scented Fern

Walking in the Vermont woodlands, along rushing streams and tall pines, hay scented fern fills the air with it’s sweet perfume. Being in these woods always reminds me of my childhood, so similar to the forests I grew up hiking in when venturing out of the city as a kid. Burying my head in the fern’s leaves, sighing with pleasure as I take in the scent, I remember the long love affair I’ve had with this fern for so many years.

When I was a little girl I spent a lot of time on a small island off the coast of Maine. The walk from the dock to our cabin by the seashore was a relaxed stroll through beautiful wildflowers, cabins by the sea, and tall old pines. I must have taken this same walk thousands of times… carried by my mother as a baby, walking with my friends as a teenager.

There was one spot along the walk to our cabin where the air was always sweet, like flowering trees blooming in the spring. This intoxicating smell was musky and soft, fresh, and like nothing I had ever smelled before. Most importantly it seemed to call only my name… no one else seemed to notice it, though the smell would stop me in my tracks every time I passed it. I tried, but I could never find it’s creator, having looked over and over again for the flower I could thank.

As a little girl I’d stand by the pine tree that marked the spot on the trail, close my eyes, and breathe in with such pleasure. I’d make people stop and smell it with me… no one else knowing where the sweetness arose from either. All through my childhood I never figured out the source, and the mystery of where the intoxicating smell came from was also delicious, as if someone was teasing me all these years and wouldn’t give in and show their face.

When I moved to the woods of Vermont, the house I rented in the woods was surrounded on one end with the most beautiful light green fern… which I recognized from years in the New England woodlands. Sitting on my porch in the spring, the smell of the honeysuckle blooms perfuming the air, drawing in hummingbirds for me to watch while sipping tea, the wind would blow across the ferns and through the porch where I sat.

As the ferns uncurled in the first spring of my arrival there, I caught the whiff of this long enamored smell from my childhood. I realized it had begun just as the ferns had uncurled, and so I went and visited them, sticking my head in their leaves, and breathing deep. Hundreds of moments from my childhood washed through me, as I saw the ferns I had always been standing near but never associated with the mysterious perfume. I was so delighted to finally have discovered the creator of this smell, who had been wooing me for so many years. This beautiful, soft, delicate fern that I’d always thought seemed to belong to the fairies.

Once I finally knew it was the feathery fern that had been creating my heavenly scent, I began finding them everywhere in the New England woods and breathing them in. On my land now, the house is surrounded on one corner with hay-scented fern, and they greet me whenever I walk down our dirt road for a swim. Every time I see them I am filled with a feeling of deep pleasure and happiness. I am a child again, able to lose myself completely to joy.

This smell sends me into a place of total surrender to pleasure and goodness, forgetting anything my mind may have been carrying, and into the bliss of being alive on earth… living in this body of nerves. Scent I’d come to understand years back, is picked up through nerve cells in the nose, and these specialized nerve cells register chemical compounds in the air, sending messages straight to the brain and nervous system, bypassing the blood/brain barrier. For me, scent has been one of the most powerful forces at work on my nervous system, and has often been a driving pull in my movement through the world.

As an herbalist often trying to keep out the overly-westernized and science-based way of thinking about plants from my healing practice, it’s no wonder the hay-scented fern has become one of my most beloved plant teachers. As I walked with the ferns today in the woods and we sat together by the pond, I thought about our relationship, and the healing affect the fern has had on me throughout my life. Why this plant seems to touch me in ways that is unlike any other. As someone who studied science in graduate school, and who adores ethnobotany and ecology, I thought about why I’ve never wanted to read or inquire about this plant I’ve been so in love with… The answer came clearly, from my child mind.

Don’t ruin it.
Don’t ruin what?
Don’t ruin it!

One thing I knew for sure, I didn’t want to know anything scientific about them. I thought about it for a bit, sitting in the Vermont woods next to the ferns.

I watched the sun slip lower behind the pine trees on the other side of the pond, dragonflies dipping together close to the water. I listened to their wings beat in a hum. Big fish relaxing close to shore, rising up to catch the occasional bug, a woodpecker’s beak drumming on a tree above. I lay back and watched the reflection of the sunlight on the water dance in wavy patterns across the tree trunks, and across my body. Following the patterns of light.

I look over to the beautiful fern, and think about why I don’t want to read anything about them. I hear inside my mind the simple truth. I already know you… and you have known me since I was a child. Naming and dissecting with my mind takes me out of presence and deep listening, away from the magic.

Looking up at the incredible long needled pines above me, my mind says “red pine.” I tell it to shut up and stop trying to own things.

I let everything lose their names, or my need to know them.

I settle into meditation by the water as the sun sets.

Walking back along the forest path, the smell of the hay-scented fern filling me up, feeling waves of peace move through my nervous system as it travels through me. Feeling I am a child again…

I thank her for the medicine all my life.


S. Maurer

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