Feasting on the Bracken Fern

Contrary to popular belief, the brake or bracken fern (aka "fiddleneck") is edible. Just be sure you stick to new, leafless shoots.

| March/April 1979

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    The mature bracken fern can be mildly poisonous. You can avoid this hazard by not eating the adult plants, which contain the toxic matter.
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    Pick those plants whose curled-over shoots have not yet opened up. Be sure that the roll on their tips still justifies the name "fiddlenecks."
    J.C. O'NEILL
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    Serve the dish hot with butter or smothered in cream sauce or melted cheese.
    J.C. O'NEILL
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    To cook your foraged bounty, boil and drain the ferns several times until tender.
    J.C. O'NEILL

  • 056 bracken fern.jpg
  • 056 bracken fern 2 new shoots.jpg
  • 056 bracken fern 4 cooked.jpg
  • 056 bracken fern 3 harvested shoots.jpg

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 disguise!

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 common "brake."

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.

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