Stalking the Hart’s Tongue Fern: A Path to Healing through Dreams, Synchronicity and Personal Imager

By Wanda Easter Burch

Hart's Tongue FernIn 1990 my dreams diagnosed breast cancer, and I began a regimen of surgery, chemotheraphy and dreaming that saved my life. After the medical diagnosis of breast cancer - with dreams as my guide - I chose a mastectomy and awoke from surgery with a swollen left arm and hand. Believing I was experiencing a temporary problem, I approached my doctors, who, like most American doctors at that time, hesitated using the term "lymphedema." The medical profession considered the "problem" rare, believed it should be accepted because they had saved a life, and, worse, they treated it with surgery and diuretics, both of which could lead to other life-threatening conditions.
In 1993 my oncologist attended a presentation given by Dr. Lerner - from Sloane Kettering - who was pioneering a long accepted European program of maintenance for lymphedema which involved a special kind of gentle massage designed to move the lymph fluid out of the swollen limb and back into the regular lymph system. I traveled to New York City where Dr. Lerner's trained massage nurse-practitioners worked daily to bring my arm and hand as close to normal as possible so that it could be managed with massage and special sleeves and gauntlets. The fluid would not leave my hand, and it remained grotesquely swollen. I had often - in my treatment for breast cancer - asked for a dream when I needed additional help, so I asked for - and received - a shared dream in which both the nurse and I dreamed a temporary solution which brought enough of a reduction in my hand size so that it could accept an appropriate gauntlet.
I went home with my new sleeve and gauntlet; but I was not satisfied. I fully appreciated the ability to manage and maintain my arm and hand, but I was haunted by the belief that the body should be able to learn to re-track itself and take care of the lymph build-up. I asked for a second dream that would offer a solution that would reverse the swelling and trigger a take-over response from my lymph system. My grandmother, the source of so many of my dream-solutions, stepped up to the plate once again.
The Hart's Tongue Fern
I walk into a large institutional style room. I have a notebook and feel that I am seeking a classroom. I go inside a classroom and sit down—it is a quilting class. The young woman teaching the class is standing with her back toward me and she is drawing a diagram on the chalkboard. Quilts are hung around the room, and I think, in the dream, that I have quite a lot of my grandmother's quilts and that I really do not wish to learn quilting. The young woman turns around and I realize she is my grandmother. The quilt class has enabled me to recognize her. She points toward me and motions for me to follow her. I rise and follow her, and, as she points, now toward the left, the entire room disappears. We are now walking together. It is early spring, slightly cold with some remnants of snow still on the soft muddy ground. I have donned a jacket and hiking boots and we are walking through the woods to a dark thicket. There is a limestone wall and a small drizzle of water flowing from a seasonal spring far above on a hillside. The ground is almost swamp-like and, at my feet, is a plant I have never before seen. It has long thick solid fronds and one or two of the fronds separate into a "V" at the end. Others do not. I ask my grandmother what is the name of this plant and I ask what its flower looks like. My grandmother simply points at the plant and indicates I should feel it. There is no flower visible, and, as I reach down, I jump back. There is a small snake coiled around the plant's base. I reach again and feel the underside of the frond—the underside is somewhat furry or hairy.
When I awoke from this dream, I was so excited about the possibility that my grandmother had presented me with a plant that would be the solution to the restoration of function in my lymph system that I ran downstairs to my library. I reached for a Reader's Digest book on magic and healing plants. I opened the book to a photograph of the plant in my dream, boldly labeled "Hart's Tongue Fern." A note stated that it was believed in ancient times that snakes coiled around the base of plants indicated the plants' magic healing properties. Medicinally, the plant - in the past - was used as a diuretic, its properties known to return flow to blocked capillary systems .[1] In an herbal I researched the use of the plant. A recipe cited the dried fronds as the part used as a decoction. Ecstatic, all I needed now was the plant or the dried fronds from a herbal shop.
In honoring my dream, I began a ten year quest that should have daunted the most steely of southern magnolias. My first discovery was that the plant was rare and endangered everywhere but England and Tennessee. In New York state I visited the local arboretum and discovered hiking expeditions to visit the fern no longer occurred. I visited a location in Canandaigua where the conditions - limestone walls and swampy ground - were perfect for its growth. I was able to view the plant - through a chain link fence almost ten feet tall bearing an enormous sign warning federal charges and imprisonment for anyone caught doing much more than glancing at this rare and endangered plant. I went to my local herbalist, only to be told that no one was drying and bottling dried fronds of the fern because no one used it any longer.
In Tennessee, a year later, back on the synchronicity trail, I discovered hundreds of the ferns at an exotic nursery in a Memphis suburb. I bought as many as I could fit into the car. In New York's cold winters, the plants died one at a time. I saved the fronds, dried them, and made tea from the leaves, using the herb book recipe. The tea tasted a bit like chamomile but a few cups of tea offered no permanent - or even temporary - solution.
Faced with another dead-end, I sighed to my grandmother: "Why have you presented such an impossible quest?" I received no answer.
Yet I continued to feel that my grandmother's dream message would somehow reveal a path of healing. And I was buoyed by fresh dreams in which my hand and arm appeared normal again.
Fourteen years passed from the day I awoke from surgery with a swollen arm and hand. I wrote a book - She Who Dreams - telling my personal story of dreaming and healing, describing in detail how I used dream imagery as prescriptions for "medicine" to bring personal and emotional healing in my life. In October, 2004, one year after the publication of my book, I pulled out my fern dream and had a personal epiphany. I looked at the dream text and said to myself: "well, you slow stupid person; you wrote a book to share with the world on using the imagery in dreams; and you have ignored the best source of information in this important healing dream—the dream itself." I had also stated in that book that not knowing my grandmother's rituals didn't matter because I carried her magic in my dreaming. I had been so obsessed with honoring my Hart's Tongue fern dream by finding the actual plant that I neglected the best use of the dream.
I then followed my own advice. I re-wrote the dream as a simple meditation and journeyed with my grandmother out of the classroom to the place in the swamp by the limestone wall. I looked at the plant again and followed my grandmother's instructions to look closely at its form, to feel it, and then I went - in my mind - back to my kitchen, dried the fronds and made a tea which I drank. Having tasted the tea made from my doomed ferns brought from Memphis, I knew the actual flavor of the tea. I then digested the dream into a simple image of a Hart's Tongue frond positioned next to a cup of tea, which I sipped in my active journey into my dream. I kept the image in my mind's eye. I also "saw" the image when I drank tea in ordinary reality. My left hand began to slowly shrink to the size of my right hand. I cut off part the fingers of the gauntlet and watched as my real fingers became more normal. I then removed the gauntlet and watched as the swelling subsided even more. I moved my wedding band from my right hand to my left. I had been unable to wear it on my left finger for 15 years. It fit perfectly.
I will continue to work with the image until even the slight remaining swelling vanishes. I will then use the image to work with the swelling in the arm itself. I found my Hart's Tongue Fern - offered by my grandmother, a gift of a dream, continuing confirmation that there is nothing more powerful that the personal healing imagery found in our own dreams.
© Wanda Easter Burch 2004. All rights reserved.
Wanda Easter Burch is the author of She Who Dreams (New World Library, 2003) and a certified teacher of Robert Moss's Active Dreaming techniques. She leads programs in healing through dreamwork. Visit her website at

[1] Readers Digest staff, Magic and Medicine of Plants, various editors. [The Readers Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, NY, 1986], p. 205.
Note: Common name, Hart's Tongue Fern; Phyllitis scolopendrium (L.) Newm. Old time folk healers believed any plant that was a "snake plant" was powerful.