Psilotum nudum

fork fern


Psilotum nudum

(L.) P.Beauv. 1805

pronounced: sy-LOH-tum NOO-dum

(Psilotaceae — the whisk fern family)

common name: fork fern

native 4Psilotum is derived from the Greek ψιλος (psilos), bare, naked, referring to the apparent nakedness of the stems; nudum is from the Latin nudus, also meaning bare or naked.

This is a fernlike plant, reproducing by spores like the ferns. It is found in tropical Africa, central America, tropical and subtropical North and South America, tropical Asia, Australasia, southern Japan, Hawaii, Lord Howe Island, and in a few isolated populations in south-west Europe. It is possibly a descendant of the first-ever group of vascular plants, and is one of the most primitive vascular plants on earth today.

In tropical areas, the plant is typically epiphytic, while in more temperate areas is it more often found growing in rock crevices. The plants photographed are growing as epiphytes on Phoenix palms in the parklands at the southern end of the Picnic Bay mall.

This is a low-growing plant devoid of roots and leaves. In their place it has branched rhizoids under the soil surface, or on the surface of the host, and forked green photosynthetic stems bearing small leaf-like appendages known as enations, and clustered yellow sporangia. These open when mature, releasing the spores to be dispersed by the wind. The dust-like spores can be carried for miles to produce the next generation.

The plant, which grows wild in southern Japan, was, up till the 19th century, much cultivated in Japanese gardens as an ornamental plant. About a hundred cultivars were developed of this plant, called Matsubarani (pine needle orchid) by the Japanese. It was also much used in Hawaii, where it was found on all the principal islands. The Hawaiians called it Moa, because of the chicken-foot-like end of the stems. Large quantities of the spores were collected and used like talcum powder under the loincloth to prevent chafing. They were also used medicinally as a purge. There was a game, moa nahele, or cock-fighting, played by the children. It consisted of interlocking the twigs, and the two players pulling on the ends. The loser was the one whose twig broke first, and the winner crowed like a rooster.
Fossil evidence, first collected in Scotland in the 1800s, suggests that the Psilophytes were thriving 400 million years ago, appearing much the same as Psilotum nudum does today. Although they are the oldest and the simplest vascular plants of which we have any record, their origin is unknown. Scientists are still debating as to whether they arose independently, or evolved from more primitive plants, and whether they were the predecessors of the modern flora, or evolutionary dead ends that have become practically extinct as more advanced plant forms appeared. Recent evidence has caused some botanists to classify them as primitive ferns, and not an an independent division of plants.


Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.


Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2014
Page last updated 21st March 2019