The mature bracken fern can be mildly poisonous. You can avoid this hazard by not eating the adult plants, which contain the toxic matter.
PHOTO: J.C. O'NEILL
Them brake ferns ain't no good," the old "stump rancher"
told me, "they pizens the ground so's you cain't grow
nothin else!" This conversation took place in the Oregon
woods during the 1930's, and the speaker lived in a crude
pine shack with no garden to be seen. The odds are pretty
good that he—along with his flock of sallow-faced
children—was suffering from malnutrition.
Of course, there's no way that this man could have known
that brake or bracken ferns don't poison the
ground (they actually just prefer soil that's too acid for
other crops), but his experience with the "weed" might have
led him to reason that if he couldn't lick the
blasted ferns, he ought to "join 'em". Had he made this
assumption, he could even have come to realize that his
runty, scrubby field of bracken was actually a garden in
In fact, with the addition of some miner's lettuce and
violet leaves (both of which coexist nicely with bracken)
the homesteader could have had fresh greens for his table
through a good portion of the growing season!
And, since research has shown us that the sprouting tips of
plants are usually high in protein, vitamins, and minerals,
I'm convinced that—had the old squatter been able to
read the directions that follow—his family would have
been healthier and happier for their association with the
First, Though, a Warning
You should know that there is a mild poison in the mature
specimens of the genus Pteridium. And, were you
to eat 24 pounds of adult bracken a day for 30
consecutive days, you might have some problems. Even if you
were tempted to indulge in such a bovine orgy,
however, you could avoid disaster by not eating
the fully developed leaves that contain the toxic matter.
New, leafless shoots are safe (although these should be
cooked to break down the enzyme thiaminase, which
destroys vitamin B1 and could—again, if great
quantities were eaten—lead to a B1 deficiency).
It's also important to be sure that you are picking the
correct fern. The plant that you're after is the common brake or
bracken fern, Pteridium (or Pteris )
aquilinum, which can be identified by the fact
that its fronds fan out—usually in groups of
three—from a central stalk, producing a coarse but
beautiful plant that can reach a height of 50 or 60 inches.
Bracken shouldn't be difficult for anyone to locate,
though. It springs up in pastures, orchards, and along
forest edges throughout most of North America. In fact,
most authorities agree that the brake is the United States'
most common fern.
Near my home in the Sierra Nevada, for example, bracken
literally covers square miles of middle-elevation
land. Yet this valuable plant is an overlooked and wasted
food source throughout most of its range. (Every rule, of
course, demands an exception. The bracken fern is
regarded as a delicacy in French Canada.)
The succulent plant should be picked when the first sprouts
come up from the knotty rhizomes (roots) in the early
spring. In cool (or high) locations, however, the bracken
"season" can stretch into August. Just be sure the
curled-over, asparagus-like shoots haven't opened up yet,
and that the roll on their tips still justifies the
It's an easy matter to gather a mess of the tasty fronds.
Look for shoots less than a foot high (it's often easiest
to locate last year's dried, brown growth first) and snap
'em off at the point where they break cleanly (like a fresh
green bean). When tasted raw, the shoots are slightly
bitter and unattractive to most folks' palates, although
the Miwok Indians are said to have enjoyed their
In order to prepare your bounty, begin by washing the
fronds. As you wash, rub them to remove
the silvery fuzz (sure, you'll miss some of this furry
coating, but the cooking water will take care of any that
you overlook). Then, cut the fronds up (or leave them
whole), and plunge them into enough boiling water to cover
the whole batch. (At this stage the fiddlenecks will give
off a bitter-almond smell, which disappears with cooking.)
Allow the pot to return to a boil, then drain the liquid
You'll probably want to repeat the boil-and-drain process
two more times. When that's done, however, you should cover
your fern feast with water for a fourth time and
let it boil for half an hour or more. The shoots will be
done when they're tender and don't taste the least bit
bitter. (And, of course, if fewer boilings produce
the same end result, so much the better.)
When the fiddlenecks are ready, drain them again (this is
one cooking water that I don't save for reuse). The "mock
asparagus" (we call it "Sierragus" in honor of our locale)
can then be served hot with butter, or floated in cream
sauce or melted cheese. And, if you prefer to eat them
cold, fiddlenecks are great when marinated in oil and
vinegar, or topped with your favorite salad dressing.
Should you want to whip up a real "wild food
gourmet" treat, however, I suggest that you try the
Use the above procedure to prepare 1 2/3 cups of boiled
fiddlenecks. Then—in a separate bowl—mix 1
clove of finely minced garlic, 3 eggs, a thick slice of
French bread (crumbled), 1/2 pound of grated Jack cheese, 2
tablespoons of grated Parmesan cheese, 1/4 teaspoon of
grated nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon of crumbled. dried basil (or
two tablespoons of this herb, if it's fresh and chopped),
and salt and pepper to taste. Add the fiddlenecks to this
mixture and stir thoroughly.
After the ingredients are all combined, pour one tablespoon
of olive oil into a medium-sized iron frying pan and heat
it up. When the pan is hot enough to sizzle, pour in the
frittata mixture, patting it out (if necessary) to
fill the base of the container. Then, cover the pan with a
flat lid (or metal plate) which has been oiled on the
"under" side. Cook your fern delight over very low heat for
10 minutes, or until it becomes quite firm and is browned
on the bottom.
Now for the tricky part. Once the underside of the mixture
is done, quickly invert the pan so that the "pancake" will
fall onto the lid. Then, slide the frittata (brown side
up!) back into the pan, cover, and cook slowly for about
five minutes more.
(As an alternative, this dish can be baked at 350° F
for about 30 minutes and then browned under the broiler.
But cooking frittatas on top of the stove in a heavy
skillet is the traditional Italian method of preparing
these delicacies and would—of course—lend
itself to the limited "kitchen" available to most campers.)
Finally, cut the frittata into wedges and serve it (a
bottle of Chianti might well be called for, too). This
recipe will make a delicious dinner dish for four hungry
So, when that early spring hankerin' for fresh greens hits
you, ferret out some fiddlenecks and, as the Italians
would say, buon appetito !
EDITOR'S NOTE: More information about gathering and
preparing wild foods can be found in the following
1. Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell
Gibbons (David McKay, 1970). Paperback. $3.95.
2. Feasting Free on Wild Edibles by Bradford Angier
(Stackpole Press, 1972). Paperback. $5.95.