Part 1: The Beginning
Lush green ferns were garnishing the planet worldwide over a hundred years BEFORE dinosaurs walked the earth, and throughout history they have maintained their prehistoric ambience. An ancient type of vascular plant, ferns actually grew before any flowering plants even existed, over 360 million years ago, and have no seeds.
For centuries, ferns have widely been interpreted as a symbol of eternal youth, happiness, prosperity and good luck. The Indigenous of New Zealand regarded the fern as a symbol of ‘new beginnings’ and ‘new life’. Ferns signify ‘family’ and hope for future generations to the Japanese.
In Brittany and Normandy, Shepherds constructed crosses out of ferns for protection of their flocks and themselves. Ferns also served in many cultures as protection against everything from witches and werewolves, to magical spells and evil spirits.
Throughout human existence there have been many cultures, religions and people that have written stories, fables and folklore about these prehistoric plants! The magic and mystery of a plant with no seed, no flower, no need for pollinators of any kind. Some of the stories created in early civilizations were to explain how these plants can even exist, given that their reproduction was regarded as impossible for years!
In the Middle Ages, because nobody had ever seen a fern flower, it was believed that the plants only flowered and produced seeds once per year, at midnight on June 23 which was St. John’s Eve, before Midsummers Day. June 24th was celebrated as St. John the Baptist day of birth and the Summer Solstice. In Slavic tradition ferns are believed to flower only once per year on the Ivan Kupala night, and although difficult to find, one who sees a fern flower is guaranteed a lifetime of fortune and happiness.
A famous Polish story of a young boy who sneaks into the woods on St. John’s Night and attempts to steal the flower for three years in a row. He must pick the flower before the rooster crows at dawn, and the first two years he failed. The third year, the boy picked the flower in time, and he was granted every wish immediately, but according to the legend, whomever picks a fern flower cannot share his fortune or he will lose everything. As a result, the boy was wealthy but was forced to become cold-hearted and selfish, and he lost everyone he ever loved. When he was all alone he realized his mistake and wished to die. All of his wishes were immediately granted and this was no different as the earth then opened up and swallowed him whole!
The seeds were believed to be invisible and anyone who obtained fern seeds were said to be able to find buried treasure, understand the secret language of birds and instantly inherit the internal strength of 40 men! Many cultures thought that because the fern seeds could never be found, that they must be invisible and therefore anyone who carried a fern seed would also become invisible. William Shakespeare cited the fern in his play Henry IV, Part 1 where a scheming robber assures his accomplice that they will not be caught at “We have the receipt of the fern seed; we walk invisible”. In the comedy ‘New Inn or The Light Heart’ by Ben Johnson, a servant who was ordered to hide explains to his master why he was found “Because Indeed I had no med’cine, Sir, to go invisible: no fern-seed in my pocket”.
Michael Jerome Leszczyc-Suminski, a Polish Count solved the mystery in 1948 when he discovered the missing link of the life cycle of the fern. One fern plant can drop up to 20 million spores and sometimes they are as small as dust particles. When one of those spores finds the perfect environment of temperature, light and moisture, it begins to germinate, but it develops into something completely different from a fern! The spores grow into a small green heart-shaped, dime-sized leaf without any roots!
The new plant, a Prothallium, contains both female and male sex gametes on the underside of its leaves where the egg and the sperm are produced. The egg becomes fertilized and transforms into an embryo with leaves, a stem and roots. Over time, the baby fern sends out tightly wrapped fiddleheads and they unfold into strange-looking fronds that resemble it’s grandparent plant, not it’s parent, because it actually takes three generations for a fern to grow another fern!
I feel like the natural history and biology of the fern is even more magical and mysterious that its mythology and folklore!
Part 2: So How Does This Apply to Us?
There are about 10,560 species of ferns and they grow throughout every continent of the world except Antarctica, in various ecosystems from Artic and temperate, though most reside in tropical regions. Sizes of ferns range from 0.08-0.12 inches tall to tree ferns reaching as high as 25 meters! In the Fanny Bay area you will most commonly find the Licorice, Maidenhair, Deer, Sword, Bracken and Lady Ferns.
Licorice Fern (Polypodium glycyrrh), tends to start its new growth in November, which is very unusual considering it is the beginning of our winter when most leaves die and fall off of the trees. You will see the small and dainty Licorice Ferns growing in shaded and damp forests within the moss of deciduous maple trees and on mossy rock faces. The roots of the licorice fern have a strong taste of Anise or Licorice and were traditionally either chewed raw but not consumed, or steeped in hot water for a remedy for sore throats and colds, to stimulate the appetite or for use with bitter medicines as a sweetener. When harvesting, it is important to use a pocket knife to cut off a small segment so that you do not disturb the entire rhizome network of fibrous roots or the moss bed in which it rests.
The Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum) refers to a genus of over 250 species of ferns that grow worldwide. Maidenhair ferns have been used medicinally throughout history to treat conditions from respiratory illness to gastrointestinal disorders to headache prevention to hair loss. Our particular local species, Western Maidenhair (Adiantum Aleuticum), presents itself with striking black stems yet delicate, finger-like fronds. My personal favorite, Western Maidenhair softens the landscape and is perhaps the most delicate and beautiful fern of Eastern Vancouver Island.
Deer Fern (Blechnum Spicant) was aptly named as it is an important food for deer and elk. Hesquiate elders identified the Deer Fern as a remedy for skin sores, as the culture observed deer rubbing their head stubs after their antlers fell off. These are a medium sized evergreen in bogs and stream banks that displays narrow sets of tall leaves.
The Sword Fern (Polystichum Munitum) is known as “The King of the Northwest Ferns’ and are not suitable for eating. They are the most prevalent of the fern species in our area, coating most of the forest floors with dense, dark green growth. The evergreen fronds and leaves are tough and rigid and grow in low to middle elevations in abundance.
Bracken Fern (Pteridium Aquilinum) exhibit solitary and large fronds with triangular blades. They branch with pairs of leaves, large at the bottom, and tapering at the tips. The Bracken is the world’s most widespread fern, and is common on disturbed or open ground. The rhizomes reach deep into the earth and quite often are able to withstand fire, making them the first species to reestablish after a forest fire. Although nearly all coastal aboriginals have eaten bracken fern, it is heavily cautioned against ingestion as bracken has been found to cause livestock poisoning and cancer in animals as they contain the carcinogenic compound ‘ptaquiloside’ (PTQ). Recent studies from Lars Holm Rasmussen of the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University in Denmark, have found that the carcinogens are dangerous not only when consumed, but also when bracken ferns reside in areas where water is consumed, and that it may be responsible for poisoning water supplies all over the world. In fact, Rasmessen tested the wells of several Danish and Swedish farms which resulted in some that registered over 20,000 times the acceptable limit for environmental carcinogens.
The Lady Fern (Athyrium Filix-femina) has large feathery, delicate fronds, clustered, spreading and up to 2m tall. The most identifiable trait is that their leaf blades taper at both ends of the stem. You will find them growing in moist stream banks, wet forests and surrounding swamps. The First Nations used the wide lady fern stalks for serving or covering foods, especially for drying berries.
You have probably heard of and seen fiddleheads, which all ferns produce at the beginning stages of life. Their shape is reminiscent of the tuning end of a fiddle, hence the name was coined. Fiddleheads are healthy greens full of antioxidants, iron omega fatty acids and fiber. The commercially picked fiddleheads that you see in markets are from the Ostrich Fern which grows in abundance in the Northern Interior of BC. The Ostrich Fern is the best tasting of the fiddleheads but unfortunately it is important to note – they DO NOT grow on Vancouver Island.
Fiddleheads can only be harvested in the first few weeks of spring before the ferns unravel. Please know that some ferns are toxic, so research and ask questions to verify identity before consuming any wild plant. Although some ferns in our area can be eaten as fiddleheads, they must be harvested young (leafless) as they just emerge from the ground and cooked thoroughly. The husks need to be removed, washed and either boiled for 15 minutes or steamed. It is also important to remember when harvesting sustainably, always remember to only take 10-30% from each plant to ensure that they grow back and stay healthy.
From riverbanks to clearcut areas to the depths of the forest floor, there are many different varieties of ferns. It is said that ferns have not evolved much in the over 360 million years they have been here, simply because there was no need to change. They are resilient, pest and disease free. They will most likely endure far more than most other species on the planet just as they previously watched the dinosaurs come and go.
Magical, beautiful and mysterious! We are so lucky to have them all around us!
Angela Hicke – Van Isle Wild
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