Family: Dennstaedtiaceae, the Bracken Fern Family
Description: Native perennial fern. Broadly triangular, 3-parted, the stem (stipe) is about as long as the fronds (blades)
Habitat: Forests, meadows, uplands, wetlands, field edges, gardens, waste areas: one of the most widely distributed plants, grows on all continents except Antarctica.
Plant Parts Used: Rhizome, fiddleheads, fronds
Food: Edible rhizome and fiddleheads with caution
Other: Basketry, insecticide
People worldwide have tried to find uses for this widely distributed fern. However, it is still treated with caution. Ray cooks the young fiddleheads after removing their “white fuzz.” Cooking destroys many of the toxins found in bracken fern but not all, so it is important not to make a habit out of eating this fern regularly. The raw fiddleheads should not be eaten. I have also heard stories of Chinese and Japanese people commonly consuming the cooked or fried rhizome, but no one I spoke to in New England consumed them in this way.
There are records of native peoples across North America knowing about the poisons found in bracken fern, but all these tribes still used this fern for medicine and food. Alaskan natives have eaten the young “fiddlenecks” steamed or boiled then peeled as an asparagus substitute. The Nuxalk would toast and eat the rhizomes during the summer. The Clallam would roast and pound the rhizomes into a flour. Many western Native Americans have historically eaten the cooked rhizomes and young fiddleheads, but none of the examples I read mentioned ever eating any part of bracken fern raw.
Due to the concentration of chemicals in bracken fern, such as cyanide, this fern was historically planted near gardens to kill insect pests. Even livestock are killed each year due to consuming too much of this powerful plant. Terry-Anya told me that ostrich ferns, Matteuccia struthiopteris, are the only ferns that show no traces of poisonous alkaloids, so she prefers consuming the easy-to-identify, non-toxic ostrich fern fiddleheads, so commonly eaten in Maine that they are sold on roadsides out of the backs of pickup trucks each spring.
Bracken fern has traditionally been woven into baskets to create a darker design. It can also be used as a dye—my aunt Wanda once gave me a skein of her own spun wool dyed with bracken fern and dandelion, creating a beautiful olive green-yellow yarn.
Caution: Toxic constituents have been found in all parts of this plant, though the particular constituents vary depending on a particular bracken fern population. Bracken fern has been known to contain thiaminase, which, according to Turner and Von Aderkas can cause “fatal thiamine deficiencies in horses and occasionally livestock.” The carcinogen ptaquiloside has also been identified in this plant. Humans who consume milk from cows that have eaten bracken fern may absorb these toxic constituents. While these effects typically only affect humans when bracken fern is eaten in quantity, Turner and Von Aderkas do not recommend consuming this plant due to the lack of scientific research on bracken fern.
Note: This post is part of my Plants and People series. See my Plants and People page for more information about the project and the people referenced in this post.
- Brooks, John. Personal Interview. 28 Nov. 2010.
- Hayes, Terry-Anya. Personal interview. 27 Oct. 2010.
- Michener, Martin C. Botany Everywhere: Woods, Field, Home, and Garden Plants of NE USA, Third Edition. Hollis, NH: MIST Software Associates, Inc., 2009. PDF.
- Mittelhauser, Glen H., Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney, and Jill E. Weber. The Plants of Acadia National Park. Orono, Me.: University of Maine, 2010. Print.
- Moerman, Daniel. “Native American Ethnobotany: A Database of Foods, Drugs, Dyes and Fibers of Native American Peoples, Derived from Plants.” UM-Dearborn College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters. Web. 14 Dec. 2010. <http://herb.umd.umich.edu/>.
- Reitze, Raymond and Nancy. Personal interview. 8, 15 Oct. 2010.
- Turner, Nancy J., and Patrick Von Aderkas. The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms. Portland: Timber, 2009. Print.