Bracken Fern: Pteridium aquilinum / POLYPODIACEAE Fern family
Bracken fern have large, coarse, triangular shaped, light green fronds (Ieaflike organ of a fern) are 3-forked and up to 1 meter in length; mature plant stalk is straw-colored and polished; spreads from creeping root-stalks; hair shoots uncurl in spring resembling fiddleheads; mature plant can exceed 1.5 meters tall; mature spores on the frond undersurface have a velvety brown appearance. Each frond appears singly, and the growth of the plant is the reverse of being tufted. The underground stems or rhizomes are deep, giving it the ability to survive intense fires.
Common west of the Rocky Mountains, less so east – found in medium to low altitudes in fields, burns, moist coniferous forests, and rocky canyons. Southern bracken is found in most of the eastern United States between Florida and Oklahoma in the south, to Missouri, Illinois, and Massachusetts in the north. Eastern bracken is found between Oklahoma and North Carolina in the south, to Minnesota, Quebec, and Newfoundland in the north. Each winter, Bracken’s fronds die with the frost and fall to the ground. New fronds will grow the following Spring.
Bracken Ferns can reproduce two ways. One is by rhizomes spreading, and the other is by spores. Ferns do not have flowers like most plants. Instead, on the underside of the fronds, there are small objects, called sori. The sori produce spores, which are a lot like seeds from a flowering plant.
Spores travel by wind and grow new ferns in new places.
Appears in early spring as fiddlehead shaped shoots. Edible: Young shoots in spring, roots in autumn.
Snap off young shoots about 7 ” from the curled fiddlehead, discarding the head itself. Peel the remaining shoot and eat raw, cooked (boiled in salted water), or steamed. Autumn rootstalks are edible after removing outer covering and roasting.
Notes of Interest:
Consuming quantities of raw shoots can create a vitamin B1 deficiency, causing a reduction in body thiamine. Cooking eliminates this potential. Bracken fern leaves are known to be poisonous to livestock when eaten in large amounts. The toxic ingredient is an enzyme that destroys the animals’ thiamin reserves.Acute poisoning from these ferns is unlikely; their effect is cumulative, and eventually produces a variety of internal cancers.
Repeated ingestions significantly increase the likelihood of developing disease; in Japan, where BRACKEN FERN FIDDLEHEADS are traditionally consumed as food, scientists attribute the high incidence of stomach cancer to the popularity of this risky vegetable.1
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1. Evans IA, Widdop B, Jones RS, et al. (September 1971). “The possible human hazard of the naturally occurring bracken carcinogen”