Fern or Foe


Fiddlehead fern are seemingly all the rage in farmers markets, especially in the United States. Their popularity among foragers has been causing a controversy that has even reached the pages of the Wall Street Journal. [ see WSJ fiddleheads outrage article here > ]

Now, you might not want to mix up your ostrich fern Matteucia struthiopteris and your bracken, Pteridium aquiline. Although bracken is widely eaten in Asia, it has a dangerous reputation. I have also been finding some extremely furry ferns, which I have failed to positively ID, but which don’t look appetising.

The Royal Horticultural Society advises, “Bracken should not be eaten, either by humans or livestock, since it contains carcinogens linked with oesophageal and stomach cancer. Eating the young fronds, considered a delicacy in Japan and parts of North America, is not recommended.”

I have snapped a few ostrich ferns off, however, and nibbled them raw – juicy, green, the flavour more delicate than a sugar snap pea, the texture better.

The inner side of the ostrich fern has a clear groove running up its middle, the upright is strong and lithe, and the fronds are papery (don’t eat those – they can just be sloughed off). They grow in clumps of 6 or so, where bracken is more each frond for itself. The fiddlehead shape you’re looking for is a perfectly inline coil, where the bracken tops have been described as more like a hawk’s claw holding a mouse…

If in doubt, boiling and salting the water would seem to be wise, as that will apparently de-nature the offending element – ptaquiloside (PTQ).  Ellen Zachos maintains that a little portion, of either fern or bracken, in its short season, is not a significant risk. And as blogger Landon Cook, author of The Mushroom Hunters and other titles points out, “The other day I ate a known carcinogen—a juicy char-grilled burger…”

Further reading:

Digest of various fern, pardon the pun https://hartley-botanic.com/magazine/eat-ornamentals-garden-author-ellen-zachos-shows/

Blogger who’s eaten bracken and survived to tell the tale: http://fat-of-the-land.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/to-eat-or-not-to-eat-bracken-fern.html  

Another fan https://fearlesseating.net/fiddleheads/

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