Quoddy Nature Notes – Ferns

Ferns

                Ferns are not high on my study list.  I don’t know why.  Ferns have been around for a few hundred million years and have been tromped on and eaten by dinosaurs and everything since then, but somehow they just do their thing and don’t generate any enthusiasm from wannabe writers like me.  The only ‘joke’ I know about ferns is that Adam invented the venetian blind when he swapped his fig leaf for a fern.

Interrupted Fern

Ferns are under the plant kingdom in the division Pteridophyta.  They are vascular plants with stems, leaves and roots but no flowers or seeds, and reproduce by spores or rhizomes.  Ferns first appeared during the Carboniferous age (they helped make that nasty coal), but the ones we have now did not evolve until about 140 million years ago during the late Cretaceous age.  There are about 12,000 species of ferns worldwide, and most of these are in the tropics, and we only have a couple of dozen or so species that are native to Maine.  The most famous fern we have in Maine is the ‘Fiddlehead’.  This is the Ostrich fern Matteuccia struthiopteris var. pensylvanica, and I don’t seem to have any on my property in Pembroke.  Fiddleheads are well known in Maine as a nice, spring vegetable to go with a mess of newly caught brook trout.  Recipes abound as to the best way of preparing these nifties, and some authors say to just barely steam them, and others say to cook them for 10 minutes, and my ‘Indian Herbalogy of North America’ doesn’t mention them at all.  Bradford Angier’s ‘Feasting Free on Wild Edibles’ mentions only the Bracken fern Pteridium aquilinum as the ‘fiddlehead’.  The scientific names also have not been solidified, so, as usual, confusion reigns in the land of science and in the kitchen.  There are some ferns that are listed in the ‘Threatened and Endangered Species in the Forests of Maine’, such as: Blunt-lobed Woodsia; Slender Cliffbrake; Ebony Spleenwort; Green Spleenwort and Male Fern.  None of these species seem to be found in the Quoddy Region, but if any are located, forestry activities in the area may be curtailed.  Most ferns, however, are a nuisance to agriculture.  Notice all of the ferns growing in the blueberry barrens.  The growers really wish those things were somewhere else.  Ferns in hayfields can be toxic to livestock, but fortunately cows generally can pick around the ferns.

Cinnamon Fern

Another interesting fact is that all ferns here are edible when they are first emerging, and apparently they all have the fiddle handle shape.  Some of the ferns, like the Cinnamon and Interrupted fern, are all covered with fuzz when they are in the fiddlehead stage, and this is messy to clean off so they are not listed as edible.  Some of the ferns, like the Hay-scented fern, are tiny little things and not worth the bother to collect, so the Ostrich fern fiddlehead, with good size and easy to clean, is the best of them all.  What about the Bracken fern?  Oh, Oh.  The Bracken fern has been implicated in the relatively high rate of stomach cancer in Asians that use a lot of it.  This goes with almost any food, and here in the US we typically indulge to an excess.  And all ferns, when they are fully open, are somewhat poisonous.

Bracken Fern

But ferns are beautiful.  The different shades of green and their graceful shape adds a lot to a stroll in the woods.  There are no thorns to scratch you, and a small breeze beckons you for intimate study and enjoyment. But the sneaky fern is carefully hiding these attributes that could make a best-seller if someone could cleverly ferret them out: mystery, poison, fine dining, and rarity amid abundance.  A closer examination is needed, but be careful.

Sensitive Fern