Episode 5: Athyrium filix-femina

The Radacast
39 min readJul 4, 2021
A photograph of lady fern fiddlehead rising in front of the stems of other fronds. Brown scales are very obvious and a couple small leaflets are unfurled to the sides.

Season two of The Radacast begins with fiddleheads . . . what are they? Will the kill you? Should cheese be in a tater tot casserole? Jo Stormer collected lady ferns (Athyrium filix-femina) last spring and lives to tell you about the science behind it.

The transcript (below) and photo are both by Jo.

Contact
Twitter: @PopulusEyedJo, @RadacastPodcast, @365BotanyWomen

Email: TheRadacast@gmail.com

This episode’s recommended podcast

Sawbones: a marital tour of misguided medicine

Some of the sources used in this episode

Alonso-Amerlot, Miguel E, “The chemistry and toxicology of bioactive compounds in bracken fern (Pteridium ssp.), with special reference to chemical ecology and carcinogensis”, Studies in Natural Products Chemistry vol 26, 2002, pages 685–739.

Anadón, Arturo, et al, Veterinary Toxicology: Basic and Clinical Principles, 2018, pages 891–909.

Burrows, George E, and Ronald J Tyrl, Toxic Plants of North America, 2013, pages 431–433.

Cardoso, Amanda A., Joshua M. Randall, and Scott A. M. McAdam, “Hydraulics Regulate Stomatal Responses to Changes in Leaf Water Status in the Fern Athyrium filix-femina“, Plant Physiology vol 179 no 2, Feb 2019, pages 533–543.

Cornara, Laura, et al, “Level of trace elements in Pteridophytes growing on serpentine and metalliferous soils,” Journal of Plant Nutrition and Soil Science, 2007.

Evans, I A, et al, “The possible human hazard of the naturally occurring bracken carcinogen”, Biochemical Journal vol 124 no 2, 1971, pages 29–30.

Hassler, Michael, “Checklist of Ferns and Lycophytes of the World”, World Plants: Synonymic Checklist and Distribution of the World Flora, 2021.

Hirono, Iwao, “Human Carcinogenic Risk in the Use of Bracken Fern,” Diet, Nutrition and Cancer, 1985, pages 139–145.

Hirono, Iwao, “Toxicants of Plant Origin: Glycosides, Volume 2”, edited by Peter R Cheeko, 1989, pages 239–250.

Johnson, David M, “Trophopods in North American Species of Athyrium (Aspleniaceae)”, Systematic Botany vol 11 no 1, 1986, pp. 26–31.

Kuhnlein, Harriet, and Nancy J Turner, Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples, 1991.

Marliere, Claudia A, et al, “Ingestao de broto de samambaia e risco de cancer de esofago e estomago na regiao de Ouro Preto, MG”, Revista brasileira de cancerologia vol 44 no 3, 1998, pages 225–229.

McAuliffe, Siobhan B, Knottenbelt and Pascoe’s Color Atlas of Diseases and Disorders of the Horse, 2014, pages 400–442.

McLoughlin, Stephen, et al, “Seed ferns survived the end-Cretaceous mass extinction in Tasmania”, American Journal of Botany, volume 95 no 4, 2008, pages 465–471.

Native American Ethnobotany Database.

Plants for a Future.

Rasmussen, Lars Holm, Hans Christian Bruun Hansen, and Denis Lauren, “Sorption, degradation and mobility of ptaquiloside, a carcinogenic Bracken (Pteridium sp.) constituent, in the soil environment”, Chemosphere vol 58 no 6, 2005, pages 823–835.

Salehi, Bahare, et al, “Athyrium plants — Review on phytopharmacy properties”, Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine vol 9 no 3, 2019, pages 201–205.

Samecka-Cymerman, Aleksandra, et al, “Rhizomes and fronds of Athyrium filix-femina as possible bioindicators of chemical elements from soils over different parent materials in southwest Poland”, Ecological Indicators vol 11 no 5, 2011, pages 1105–1111.

Scheller, Johann Jakob, “How much genetic variation in fern populations is stored in the spore banks? A study of Athyrium filix-femina (L.) Roth”, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society vol 127 no 3, July 1998, pages 195–206.

Schneller, Johann Jakob, and Rolf Holderegger, “Vigor and Survival of Inbred and Outbred Progeny of Athyrium filix-femina”, International Journal of Plant Sciences vol 158 no 1, Jan 1997.

Schneller, Jakob, and Burgi Liebst, “Patterns of variation of a common fern (Athyrium filix-femina; Woodsiaceae): population structure along and between altitudinal gradients”, American Journal of Botany, 2007.

Schwerbrock, Robin, and Christopher Leuschner, “Foliar water uptake, a widespread phenomenon in temperate woodland ferns?”, Plant Ecology vol 218, 2017, pages 555–563.

Shaw, Hank, “How to eat bracken fern safely”, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, 2016.

Vetter, János, “A biological hazard of our age: Bracken fern [ Pteridium aquilinum (L.) Kuhn] — A Review”, Acta Veterinaria Hungarica vol 57 no 1, April 2009, pages 183–96.

Walkup, Crystal J, “Athyrium filix-femina”, Fire Effects Information System, 1991.

Transcript
Hello, you’re listening to The Radacast and this episode is about the fiddleheads of the common lady fern — Athyrium filix-femina.

[Banjo]

Hi, my name is Joe Stormer and welcome to the fifth episode of The Radacast! This is a scientific podcast about foraging named after Tolkien’s Radagast the Brown, also known as “Bird Friend”, who cared for the flora and fauna of Middle Earth. With ever episode I do my best to research, harvest, and cook some species of forageable plant, fungus, or algae; and I tell you all about it.

[Banjo]

That strum of that banjo means that it’s taxonomy time! Taxonomy, the science of classification, is derived from the Greek word taxis, meaning “arrangement”. Taxidermy, the arrangement of leathered skin over a skeleton, is derived from the same word. Now drop THAT knowledge bomb at your next job interview and/or first date!

So why do I start off with taxonomy? Hmm, why DO I start with taxonomy? Because this is how we describe just how this species or this group of species is different from all other species of life.

What makes a lady fern a lady fern?

As usual, we start at the top — at kingdom. Lady ferns belongs in the kingdom Plantae. These are plants, you know, those green things you see everywhere? Sometimes they’re different colors, but mostly green. Not all green things are plants; some green things are frogs.

The next clade (or group or organisms with a common ancestor) is Tracheophytes. These are vascular plants which contain passages for carrying water and dissolved nutrients. This differentiates them from bryophytes like moss.

The class under that is pronounced something like “Polypodiopsida”, maybe? Um, these are ferns. Now ferns evolved somewhere are 360 million years ago in the Devonian period, but then they diversified into the ferns we know sometime during the Cretaceous. All modern ferns are cryptogams, meaning “hidden reproduction”. They reproduce via dust-like spores, instead of seeds. Now the term cryptogam can also refer to other organisms with vaguely similar reproductive processes — like mosses, lichens and even fungi. What these have in common is that there is nary a flower among them

Let’s talk about the reproductive cycle of cryptogams like ferns. This is some pretty cool shit! In the course of reproduction, ferns go through two alternating generations — one of which is rarely seen or even more rarely thought of. So picture in your mind a fern. That is the generation called a sporophyte, meaning a spore-producing plant. The leaves of the sporophyte produce tiny, dust-like spores that float away on the wind and (with a little luck) land on the right type of soil or other substrate that has enough moisture for the spore to sprout into a tiny little fleck of a plant called a gametophyte. This gametophyte will be maybe the size of a lentil, probably just a single flat leaf called a prothallus, which is only a single cell thick. It doesn’t even have true roots but instead is anchored with structures called rhizoids, each of which is only a single, elongated cell. But when the conditions are right and the soil is moist, it’s time to get busy. These little gametophytes will release literal swimming sperm from male structures called antheridia, which wriggle through the wet soil in search of other gametophytes with female structures called archegonia. If all goes well, these sperm will fertilize the eggs in the archegonia, and from each archegonia will sprout a tiny little fern leaf and another slightly less tiny fern leaf, each one bigger than the last. Sooner or later we’ve got a full-grown fern on our hands, which again is the sporophyte generation that we’re all familiar with.

The sporophyte is the generation that has full-size fern leaves, that reproduces asexually via spores, whereas the gametophyte is the little speck of a plant that reproduces sexually via eggs or sperm; one leads to the other.

Sorry, maybe I should have given a content warning about plant sexy time.

Now there was a time that there were plants called seed ferns or pteridosperms, spelled with a P kinda like pterodactyl. These were actually seed-bearing plants called spermatophytes, like flowers or conifers. They evolved around the same time as the true true ferns and the fossil record suggests that they survived at least until the Eocene Epoch, with the youngest fossils being thought to be between 51 and 52 million years old. But while fossil record of the coelacanth disappeared 66 million years ago and they were thought to be long extinct, there’s really no deep sea for a seed fern to hide in.

But back to true ferns — cryptogams that reproduce via spores. The leaves of a sporophyte are usually referred to as fronds. Fronds can be either sporophylls and trophophylls. Trophophylls whose only purpose is to photosynthesize and provide energy for the plant. This word is derived from the ancient Greek words trophé (meaning “nourishment”) and phullon (meaning leaf). And then it’s the sporophylls whose role is to produce the spores. Sporophylls can sometimes be green (you know, producing their own energy via photosynthesis), but other times they are completely specialized and they might be off-white or brown or something like that. These two types of fronds are commonly referred to as sterile and fertile fronds. These two types may look almost identical sometimes or they may be distinctly different, kind of like with grape ferns or deer ferns

But not all ferns look fern-like. Some have unbranched strap-shaped leaves (like the harts tongue fern), but the stereotypical fern has compound leaves. The most simply compound leaves are pinnate. This means that each frond is a single leaf that is subdivided so that it has smaller leaflets arranged along a central stem. Sword ferns are a good example, as are the leaves of ash trees and pea vines.

A bit more complicated than that is bipinnate. These are the fronds whose leaflets are further divided into tinier leaflets, so that each leaf stem branches into smaller leaf stems.

And after that is tripinnate. This is some fractal shit goin’ on. Each leaf stem divides into smaller leaf stems, which divide into even smaller leaf stems.

Now in classification, after class comes order -and the order that lady ferns fall into is Polypodiales. These are referred to casually as polypods, meaning many feet. These have historically been defined by the anatomy of their sporangia — the tiny spore-producing organs which are arranged in clusters called sori. They evolved around 100 million years ago, around the same time that flowering plants first rose to dominance.

Now below order is suborder, and this is the suborder Aspleniineae. These are named for the spleenwort fern genus Asplenium, which includes species commonly known as birds nest ferns and walking ferns.

However, we’re not going to the family of Asplenium. Instead we’re going to the family Athyriaceae. This family conveniently is eponymous for the genus of the lady fern, Athyrium. They are characterized by having monolete spores, mean each having a single microscopic line indicative of how the cell had divided from another spore. In 2016, the Pteridophyte Phylogeny Group defined Athriaceae as containing three genera. In addition to Athyrium, there’s Deparia (false spleen worts) and Diplazium (the twin-sori ferns). These ferns are defined as developing the spore-producing clusters on both sides of the leaf vein

Now finally, the genus Athyrium (commonly referred to as “lady ferns”). Athyrium is derived from the Greek for “without a shield”, meaning that the indusium (which is the covering of the spore-producing structures called sori) is inconspicuous. Athyrium contains about 180 species. Very recently, Hassler and Schmitt divided this genus further into three more genera in their publication Checklist of Ferns and Lycophytes of the World, so we’ll see if the wider research community comes to more or less agree with this.

And finally, Athyrium filix-femina; this is the common lady fern. Filix meaning “fern” in Latin, femina mean . . . “lady”? The distribution of the common lady fern is circumboreal, growing throughout the higher latitudes of North America and Eurasia. Here in North America they range from Alaska down to California, across to Texas and on to Florida, and up the coast all the way to Labrador. They grow in meadows, woods, and wetlands, and has even been recorded in West Virginia growing in two to four inches of water. They prefers more acidic soil in which the pH range is around 4.5–6.5, and they’ve been known to grow up to about ten thousand feet of elevation in states like Utah, California, and Arizona. Athyrium distentifolium is the “alpine lady fern” (also known as Athyrium alpestre) and here they have the same range — though the latter is a smaller, high-altitude relative.

The common lady fern is listed as exploitably vulnerable. The species is in relatively good shape but it is exploitably vulnerable in New York and the subspecies “southern lady fern” is threatened in Florida. The common lady fern in general can handle temperatures down as low as -4°F or -20°C. And they can even survive infrequent, low-intensity fires.

The fronds of the lady fern are cespitose. The fronds are cespitose in the way that they all emerge together from a central cluster, rather than popping up out of the dirt individually along the length of a rhizome. This will come in handy for identification later.

The leaves are bipinnate to tripinnate. Each frond is divided into leaflets, those leaflets divided into smaller leaflets, and those leaflets often divide into even tinier leaflets (but they don’t always). It has a very delicate look and feel. They bear yellow spores and deciduous fronds which emerge each spring and die-off in the fall. The fronds drop off once exposed to frost and I’ve learned by keeping one indoors they’ll hang on longer, and they just get rattier and rattier. However, I’ve also learned that kept outside here at sea level in Washington, they can produce a second wave of leaves in a season if their first wave of leaves is cut back.

Generally these leaves are up to a meter long and ten inches wide, but it’s not unheard of that they’ll grow over two meters tall. Each frond is elliptically shaped, such that if you laid it out on the floor and looked at it from above, it would be . . . kind of like an opening eye, coming to more-or-less of a point at either ends. Petiole stem bases are swollen and they can function as trophopods, storing starch.

Robin Schwerbrock and Christoph Leuschner exposed the leaves of lady fern and four other woodland fern species to heavy water — water molecules that are made with a relatively rare isotope of hydrogen. Heavy water is made with deuterium, a hydrogen isotope that has a nucleus that contains a neutron; the predominant hydrogen isotope is called protium and it has only a single proton for a nucleus — no neutrons at all. The scientists were able to track the way that the heavy water passed from the droplets on the leaves, into where it was absorbed, to other parts the plant — suggesting that this may be a widespread technique for ferns to absorb rain and dew, and the researchers suggested that the structures of hair-like trichomes could be playing a role in this.

Now many plants utilize the hormone abscisic acid to regulate opening and closing of their stomata; this hormone is released within the roots that are exposed to dry soil, triggering the stoma to close. Researchers Cardoso et al found that lady ferns exposed to this abscisic acid showed no closure of the stomata when the plant was artificially exposed to the hormone. Instead, they found that the hydraulic dynamics within and without the plants are what trigger these openings and closures of the tiny pores. It’s not a hormone controlling controlling these pores, but rather the rigidity of the stomata’s guard cells and the rigidity of the overall leaves.

Let’s talk about reproduction. Like many other ferns, lady ferns spread vegetatively via rhizomes, but also via spore. Again, all modern ferns are spore-producing cryptogams. These spores are hardy and have been found to remain viable even after passing through the gut of an earthworm, as found by researcher Johann Jakob Schneller.

Unlike many other plants, lady ferns populations have been found not to be genetically separated from populations at other elevations that are relatively close geographically. Instead, long-distance spore dispersal is hypothesized to exchange genetic materials across topographical gradients, from high elevation to low elevation and from low elevation to high elevation. Schneller and colleague Burgi Liebst tested this in Switzerland and, by testing them against Italian and Spanish populations, the researchers found the ferns are genetically different over long distances but they are genetically similar over short distances (regardless of elevation).

Now a really interesting study was undertaken by Dorothy Curry and Gary K Greer. These heart-shaped cordate gametophytes of lady ferns were grown on agar growth media, with half of the agar having been used before and half of it being new. They found that the agar which had been previously used for growing gametophytes yielded a higher number of male antheridia and fewer female archegonia, likely as a result of hormones like antheridiogen. The take away is that the more gametophytes grow in an area, the more that they are male. As many of us self-isolating without partners are more than familiar with, it’s important that lady fern gametophytes are able to self-fertilize in case a single plant happens to be grown in isolation, with no other gametophytes to do it with.

Sporophytes emerging from inbred gametophytes are weaker than outbred gametophytes, as demonstrated by Schneller and colleague Rolf Holdregger. Schneller found that a mix of gametophytes coming from different parents yielded the most vigorous growth and lowest mortality. Intergametophytic selfing (meaning the sibling offspring of a single parent fertilizing each other), this led to higher mortality but self-fertilization (when a gametophyte is fertilized by the exact same gametophyte) yielded the shortest leaves and the highest level of mortality. So I suppose the more male antheridia there are around flooding the area with sperm, the less likely that a gametophyte will self-fertilize.

Ecologically, elk, deer and bears have all been documented eating lady fern, because it’s good. Which actually reminds me that I have some black bear scat in my fridge, and I’ve been meaning to see if I can germinate any seeds from that.

Now I want to give a run down of some human uses for this plant. Much of this information is drawn from the Plants for a Future website, which provides a great conglomeration of species-by-species information, including historic and contemporary ethnobotanical uses. Quite a few researchers contributed to information I found on the Native American Ethnobotanical Database, but none as much as Nancy J. Turner. A good bit of this information also came out of her book Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples”.

Roasted roots reported to have been eaten by the Quileute, Quinault, Salish, and Dena’ina peoples; although Turner suggests that this may possibly be a case of mistaken identity between lady fern and Dryopteris wood fern — a mistake on the part of the ethnographers. The “bulbs” that grow on the roots have been eaten by the Makah, and they have been recorded to be used as a sign of available water by the N̓səl̓xcin̓ (also known as the Okanagan). The fronds have been used for covering food by the Cowlitz, the Nitinaht, and the Shuswap people. The Kwakiutl people have used it for covering mushrooms that have been roasted to make red paint, the Karok have used it to clean blood from eels, and the fiddleheads themselves have been eaten by the Salish peoples (including the Klallam).

One hundred grams of the fresh fiddleheads yield:

34 calories

91g water (not surprising there)

3.2g of protein, of the about 50g that an adult needs to eat every day

0.2g fat

4.9g carbohydrate

A bit of riboflavin and niacin, and

about 8.9mg vitamin C

Medicinal uses that have been recorded have included being used as a diuretic by the Ojibwe and as an analgesic by the Cowlitz. The Hesquiat have used the fiddleheads particularly for ovarian cancer. As far as easing labor pains, the Makah have used a decoction of the stems and the Meskwaki have used a decoction of the root. Grated root has been applied to skin sores by the Ojibwe people. They’ve also used a root infusion to promote lactation, as have the Potawatomi. In the event of bloody vomit, it has been used by the Nlaka’pamux people. In the case of intestinal fevers during pregnancy, the Haudenosaunee (also known as the Iroquois people) have used a root infusion together with New England aster; and the Haudenosaunee have also used an herbal mixture for delaying water breaking. An infusion of rhizome and that of the sensitive fern has been used in an attempt to treat venereal disease and the Heiltsuk people have used it as an eye wash. And in the Diano valley of Italy, it has been used with honey to treat cough.

Now let’s talk safety.

First, bioaccumulation. The researchers Cornara et al tested twelve ferns and two horsetails species for accumulation of trace elements, and all of them fell short of accumulation rates that would classify them as hyperaccumulators. On the bright side, there is a low risk that you will be exposed to heavy metals that the plant has taken up from the soil, but as a negative they are also unsuited for use in phytoextraction as a means of removing those pollutants from the soil. The authors suggest that this could be the result of adaptations to avoid metals uptake in order that the plants can tolerate growth in areas that are otherwise too toxic for most other plants, and that perhaps some of these species could still be used for soil stabilization during this restoration process.

The researchers Samecka-Cymerman et al compared the concentrations of fifteen metals in the leaves and rhizomes of lady ferns (collected in southwest Poland) and they compared these to maps of rock types. They found these to correspond so strongly that the metal concentrations could be used to extrapolate the rock substrate below, just by testing the tissues.

But now let’s get into some organic chemistry. Lady ferns produce thiaminase, which is a compound that is found in many (if not all) ferns. Thiaminase breaks down thiamin — vitamin B1

Severe thiamin deficiency leads to béribéri, which is a disease that leads to the debilitation of the cardiovascular or nervous systems. Luckily for us, thiaminase is easy destroyed by cooking (as has been shown in many studies). You know, I might munch on a raw fiddlehead or two occasionally when I’m out in the field, but I don’t make a habit of it. Thiaminase is also water soluble, but I am not familiar with to what extent soaking fiddleheads will remove this compound. It is believed by many (not all) that the imperialist explorers Burke and Wills in Australia died from béribéri, as a result from eating raw spore-producing bodies of a very odd aquatic fern called nardoo. Properly prepared, however, this was and is a valuable food plant to Aboriginal peoples of the area.

The website Plants for a Future (generally a good resource) is among a good number of sources that state that thiaminase can be destroyed by drying the plant matter thoroughly, but try as I might I cannot find any evidence to support this. This may be yet another example of the echo chamber of self-appointed foraging experts, each quoting one another but no one checking to see if there is any research to verify the claim. Either way, dried fiddleheads don’t sound good.

Speaking of unsubstantiated claims, you cannot go too far on the internet without finding people stating that fiddleheads are carcinogenic.

[Sigh]

Okay, let’s dive into this. This comes from folks confusing information about common fiddleheads like lady fern and ostrich fern (both of which unfurl like a scroll) with information about the shoots of the bracken fern (which is distinctly different and looks as it’s coming out of the ground kind of like a creepy little green baby alien fist)

The word bracken is simply derived from Nordic linguistic roots for “fern” and it applied to the genus Pteridium, also spelled with a P. This vegetable is a popular constituent in the Korean dish bibimbap, and in its raw form contains three questionable compounds. The first, thiaminase (as already discussed) breaks down easily in cooking.

Secondly, we have hydrogen cyanide. This is a compound has a slight bitter almond flavor, though it’s a different cyanide compound than benzaldehyde (which gives foods a bitter almond or cherry flavor. You’ll notice when you cook brackens that they can smell like cherries, but don’t let cyanide scare you. As is evidenced by the fact that we can eat cherries, our bodies are more than capable of consuming trace amounts of cyanide. However, hydrogen cyanide is a more dangerous compound. This is a weak acid that used as a defense mechanism against insects. It has the ability to cause insects to continuously molt their exoskeletons until they waste away, which is pretty damn cool in my opinion.

Not so cool is that it has been used in war as a form of poison gas by the U.S., France, and Italy. In WWII, this was the Zyklon B compound which was used for mass murder in the Nazi death camps. It has also been used in state-sanctioned executions in the United States, which is only marginally less genocidal (considering that capital punishment disproportionately targets racial minorities and the disabled).

That horrific history aside, we can rest assured when eating bracken that hydrogen cyanide isn’t sticking around when we cook it, because it boils just above room temperature. On the other hand, benzaldehyde (the bitter almond flavor) doesn’t boil until 178°C or 352° F. That cherry flavor is gonna stick stick around after you’ve cooked your bracken ferns, so don’t worry about it.

The third compound (and the reason that people will erroneously say that fiddleheads are carcinogenic) is ptaquiloside. Ptaquiloside (not to be mistaken for the novel by Harper Lee of similar name) is a legit carcinogen and it is not known to occur in lady fern. It’s found to be highest in young plants (which are the ones that are also good for eating), it has been shown to be carcinogenic among mammals in laboratory testing, and it is suspected to be related to esophogeal cancer hotspots in Brazil and Japan. Poisoning of cattle had been documented when no other forage is available, and the toxin is at least suspected to be sometimes passed to humans through raw milk. Also, researchers Rasmussen et al have found the presence of ptaquiloside from bracken can pass through sandy soils into ground water where the plant grows in abundance.

Luckily for us, ptaquiloside is unstable at room temperature and is easily destroyed by cooking. In one study using rats, tumor incidence was found to be 78.5% when the rats were fed untreated bracken, but this dropped down to 25% when the bracken was boiled with wood ash, 10% with baking soda, and 4.7% with salt. I don’t know how long these were cooked or how much bracken these poor mice were forced to eat, but it is worth keeping in mind that lab rats are extremely inbred and are usually forced to eat ridiculous amounts of potentially dangerous materials in lab studies. Nevertheless, it’s clear that additives to cooking water can be an extra safety measure when consuming bracken. This carcinogen is water soluble (as is demonstrated by the ground water study) and I’ve heard that there is a Japanese preparation method that involves soaking it in multiple changes of water.

To back up, in a mildly alkaline environment ptaquiloside converts into the extremely unstable compound dienone, which is the compound that actually does the genetic damage. It is worth mention that the human body is mildly alkaline, in the ballpark of pH of about 7.4. Dienone then reacts with adenine and guanine (the A and the G in our genetic code) splitting the DNA strand. Nasty shit.

But let’s talk about the risk. By studying esophageal and gastric cancer combined, one study by Marliere et al found that the frequency of upper gastric cancer was between 5.1 and 8.1 times higher among individuals who consumed bracken daily. Taking the average of those two numbers and doing a little bit of back-of-the-envelope math, one could roughly extrapolate that regularly consuming bracken could raise the likelihood in the United States of contracting either of those two cancers from 14 in every 100,000 to almost 1 in every 1000. Of course that isn’t a super scientific calculation and that’s a big enough number that I would have to give it some thought before consuming bracken on a regular basis, but I personally feel fine with perfectly eating it occasionally.

That said, in a chapter of the book “Bioactive Natural Products”, Miguel E Alonso-Amelot explains that in Ouro Preto, Brazil, (where the previously mentioned study was performed) it is typical to cook bracken only briefly and that it is presumed that ptaquiloside is not being thoroughly broken down in such a short period of heat. Further, there is evidence that in Brazil between 18 and 50% of upper gastric cancerous activity contain the viruses HPV 16 and HPV 18; the cancerous growths associated with bracken test positively for this viral DNA. This gives reason to hypothesize that the HPV vaccines Gardasil and Gardasil 9 may reduce the risk of bracken-associated cancer. You know, it’s my personal assessment for myself that infrequent consumption of bracken paired with thorough cooking will greatly minimize the risk of cancer associated with bracken consumption, and HPV vaccination would sweeten the deal. Do your own research, though, and make your own decision.

Now it’s time to head out to the field! Just so you know, I recorded the foraging and cooking almost a year ago — near the beginning of lock down here in Washington state but before the police murder of George Floyd plunged folks like myself into a season of sustained, daily protest.

[Banjo]

[Birds chirping, gentle gurgling of water]

Well, good morning! This is a morning in early may and I’m up here on the west slope of the Cascade mountains. I’m standing about Mine Creek, which is a tributary of the Snoqualmie River. I was really looking forward to foraging along this creek, but I am at too high of an altitude. So there are patches of snow around me and I would guess that it’s probably about 750 feet above me where solid snow begins. I’m currently at 2500 feet. I’ve risen 500 feet in the last mile and a half from where I parked my car. I drove up here as far as I could (as far as my car could handle) and I walked to remainder of the way. When I left my car there, I could see foxglove coming up, a bit of fireweed; the Pacific bleeding heart was in full bloom. Up here, there’s the sprouts of bleeding heart and we have coltsfoot in full bloom, with some of the coltsfoot leaves coming up. There are a LOT of gun casings up here. We’re in the National Forest, where people just do whatever the hell.

I’m gonna go back across Money Creek here. The culvert is completely washed out, but I can pick my way across the rocks.

[Rushing water becomes louder, with occasional clattering rock followed by sound dying down again and then footsteps]

Alright, back to safety. Where I’m at is pretty well surrounded by red alder. This is an early succession plant in the forests here. They love disturbance and once they grow up and get old and and die and probably give way to fungus like honey mushrooms, that’s when the conifers’ll move in.

We definitely see a lot of hemlock around here. Hemlock is pretty dominant right about here. I see some doug fir. I saw a little bit of grand fir a little further down, and I think Pacific silver fir is the one that looks like a grand fir with the leaves completely flat out but with a little bit of a mohawk of shorter leaves sticking straight up from the twig. If I remember correctly, noble fir is the kind of like upturned bottle brush. Subalpine fir is like that, but shorter leaves and more condensed.

[Bird songs and faint footsteps]

I don’t know if you can hear that; it sounds wonderful. I don’t know my bird sounds very well, but I do know that I’ve been seeing a a lot of American robin thrush around here.

Oo! Okay, now this is the upturned bottle brush that I’m talking about, that I think is noble fir. It has a blunt tip, not notched though I think I might have heard that on branches where it is yielding cones that there is notching. Umm, don’t quote me on that, although I will put it into the transcript.

Alongside this logging road here is a good bit of salmonberry, which is a pretty weedy native with really pretty flowers. I see some sword fern. On the edges there’s some pretty dense groups of deer fern and in the woods themselves there’s salal and an occasional Oregon grape. There’s some devil’s club, which has buds that are edible but the buds aren’t out yet at this altitude. And here at this altitude as I’m walking downhill I see some evergreen violet (Viola sempervirens); at this altitude they’re just opening up and as I walk along I’ll see a lot more. One funny thing about Viola sempervirens is that it’s really different from our other native violets because it has really tough leaves and the leaves and the flower all taste kind of minty. It’s bizarre.

Here are some fiddleheads along the road here, but I think I saw a bunch more further down and I’m going to wait until I get there.

[Footsteps]

Here is a real good patch. On a normal road I wouldn’t collect beside the road, but this is a logging road and there’s not much traffic. I can’t imagine that there are many leaks of oil and antifreeze; not much in the way of emissions. This road is built out of just stone; there aren’t any hydrocarbons being used as a foundation.

[Bird song]

Now to minimize the damage I do to these plants (the amount of trauma), I’ve pulled out a knife — just a basic utility knife. I’m gonna cut these off. You know, I will harvest these until they’re kind of opening up. Some of these will have little leaves coming unfurled, these are good.

Good technique to preserve the population is not to take more than a third of every plant and maybe take from every third plant; every second or third plant is a good way to go.

I’m cutting these off at the base, tossing them in a bag. [Loud crinkling noise and the sound of a knife slicing through plant matter]

To describe these, I guess the side opposite that they’re unfurling on is rounded, whereas the other side of it where it’s unfurling from has a divot, kind of like the inside of celery. The whole thing has these brown scales attached to it. I don’t know if that keeps them from sticking together or if that’s protective to keep insects off it. The little leaves, I can see they are almost bipinnate. Off of each frond, there is a leaf that comes into smaller leaves (okay, that’s bipinnate) — almost tripinnate because each of those leaves has lobes that are almost subdivided all the way to the stem, but not quite so I would say that these are still bipinnate.

Above me where I’m collecting is a really gorgeous elderberry tree that’s probably about three or four inches across at the base. The leaves on it are coming out. Probably a red elderberry; that’s what’s most commonly found here. Below me I’m seeing a little bit of Galium, a little bit of Siberian miners lettuce popping up — Claytonia somethin’-somethin’.

Oh, these are really beautiful. I’d say they’re about half an inch thick and the tallest that I’m collecting are, oh, probably nine inches.

[Banjo]

That was great! In the course of about fifteen minutes, I gathered maybe five pounds of this and there’s still a lot more to go in this patch. This is more than I can personally use, so that means that I’ll be swinging by some friends’ houses and dropping off bags for them, too. I’m continuing back down the road and keeping an eye out for other plants to eat.

This early in the spring at this elevation I kind of doubt that there’ll be any mushrooms, but I’ll keep an eye out.

There are some Trillium, which are kind of nice to eat too. If you boil it with a change of water, it can be really nice. Those of you out east (in the midwest or whatever) probably think I’m a monster for eating it. I only eat one of the three leaves, and also our populations here in the Pacific Northwest have not been devastated the same way that they have been by invasive earthworms out east. But I’m only seeing a few of them. If I saw it in more abundance I’d probably take some, but not when there’s just a few.

On the other hand, though, here instead are some evergreen violets (Viola sempervirens). This is a pretty large population so I’m gonna grab some of these to take home to add to my salads, and also I think I’ll press some to send to my nieces for their birthday. Evergreen violet has kind of a leaf that sits on the ground during the winter and then pokes up a little more in the spring, when they have these really gorgeous little flowers with some little stripes on the petals.

Here’s a small hillside that’s completely covered with deer fern. They’re still laying over (squished by the snow) but I can see some of the little red fiddleheads just starting to poke up.

Hmm. Somewhere around here I saw a yew tree. I’d really like to take some cuttings from that to try to take home. It’s a little bit hard to spot them sometimes among all the hemlock. They have similar structure, superficially.

Ah, gorgeous! I’m seeing some huckleberries with leaves out (Vaccinium somethin’-something’) and I’m really seeing some other things that really look like lady fern. They tend to grow a little bit drier; like for example, if you see a bunch of lady fern along a stream bank, these’ll be a little bit higher on the stream bank. They’re a little bit reddish, thinner, a little bit tougher, a little bit spindly, and they don’t taste good — kind of bitter. So, umm, not gonna eat that.

[Banjo]

And I’m home. I spent a bit more time wandering around the South Fork Snoqualmie River and I got a few more edible things. I got a whole bunch of hedge nettle (some species of Stachys). One nice thing about that is that over harvest is considerably less of a concern with hedge nettle because it seems that people really don’t think it tastes good, but I don’t mind it so I brought that home. I also found some sort of mustard, something in the Brassicaceae family, and I brought that home, too. I tossed those two things together with my evergreen violets, and that will be my salad greens for the week. I also found . . . not a lot, but I found a patch of Trillium, was large enough that I was able to take one of the three leaves of each individual plant. I brought some of those home, and I’ve got those in a jar, ready to boil. If you’re going to eat them, well, first of all make sure that you’re in an area where it is plentiful enough where you can ethically harvest it. In areas that have been invaded with earthworms (so basically the entire East Coast, probably most of Appalachia by now, the Midwest, places where earthworms were wiped out by glaciers and have been reintroduced by European settlers — myself included), Trillium has just been decimated in many areas. So if you’re out east, don’t touch them probably, but out here they’re doing great so I brought a little bit of that.

You wanna boil it, pour off the water. When you smell the water you poured off and you smell the Trillium, you can smell the difference; you can smell exactly what you poured off. You’ll be like, “Yeah, I really don’t want to eat that.”

Also I found a little bit of oyster mushrooms, so I’ll probably just fry those up. Is that everything? Oh, and I guess I ate some bigleaf maple blossom, too. Yeah, I think that’s all.

Now, what I need to do is I need to take out of my oven a mixture of peat moss and perlite that I have sterilizing. I do not buy peat moss anymore because of the environmental impact of peat moss but also because of the climate impact — because the moment you dry peatlands, the emission of greenhouse gasses from the carbon that is stored up in that peat is astronomical. So I bought this peat from a garden store before I knew of the impact of peat, and I will never buy it again.

So yeah, I dried that out at 250°F, and I will be using that to start my yew cuttings and some kinnickkinnick or bearberry, scientific name Arctostaphylos uva-ursi. This is a bit of a misnomer because kinnickkinnick actually is an Algonquin word (or rather rerived from an Algonquin word) for “smoking mixture”, of which Arctostaphylos uva-ursi is only one component.

As soon as this mixture dries down, I’m going to put some of these cuttings in it and see if I can get it growing.

Whew! What am I going to do with these fiddleheads? So I have a massive bag of these and I’m kicking myself. I was going to dig up a couple plants to try to bring back because of how I’d been reading about the different uses for the subterranean parts of the plant. I just forgot so, dunno, maybe I’ll do that for another episode someday or, hey, if you’ve ever tried this, I’d love it if you tweeted at me, comment on iTunes or Castbox or SoundCloud, or even email me and tell me how it went.

So what I’m going to make with this is I’m gonna make tater tot casserole. Yeah, I’m pretty excited. Normally I make tater tot casserole with green beans and this struck me. And you can’t see but maybe you can hear that I’m just grinning from ear-to-ear. I’m pretty damn excited about this.

This is going to have a meat substitute as the base. Then I’m gonna toss in these fiddle heads instead of green beans, over which I’m gonna pour cream of mushroom soup. Then the top layer is just going to be perfectly lined with tater tots and then back together.

I’m gonna wash all these. I was thinking about not washing them because they’re pretty clean, but you know just in case they’re really sandy I’m just going to really regret it.

Just to test, I’m tossing them into my casserole pan. The long stems I’m breaking up until they’re a nice size to bite into, maybe as short as you’d like your green beans to be in a casserole. I’m tossing them into a casserole pan; they’re not the bottom layer, but I wanna get a measure [crisp sound of breaking stems] of how many of these I want to wash up right now. I don’t know if fiddleheads will keep better washed or unwashed.

Oo, that one was really juicy. I love that they have this really slimy, viscous, juicy side of them.

Now these brown dry scales that are on the stems . . . they’re not inedible. I dunno, I don’t really mind them. Sometimes I’ll remove them; if I’m cooking for someone else I probably will remove them, but I dunno, I don’t care. It’s more fiber, you know? But just from washing these and and agitating the water, some of the scales are gonna come off. Maybe the word scales sounds worrying, but they’re really kind of like real thin papery bits. And maybe papery is also not the most appetizing word. I don’t eat animals anymore, but let’s say that it’s the like the most delicately thin, crisped up, dry fish skin. How ‘bout that?

Normally when I do this, I get a two-pound bag of green beans and [laughing] as quickly as this pan is filling up I’m starting to think that maybe I have closer to ten pounds of this. Maybe I’ll try pickling some of these? Oh! Oh yeah, that’ll be great! I just have to remember that if I end up pickling these, because they contain thiaminase . . . I can look up how quickly thiaminase breaks down once cellular processes are stopped. It could be that it’s just going to break down on its own with time or potentially with the acidity of the vinegar. But if not, maybe I should quickly blanch them. You know, that may help the pickling juice to get in through the cell walls into the crevices of the plant a little better, and it’ll also give them a real nice bright green color.

It really is a pleasure to cook these or pan fry these or toss them in boiling water and see a sudden shock of green color. I dunno if you’ve ever tossed fresh seaweed into a pot, ah, it’s the same thing that happens and I just think it’s fantastic. I know that kelp does that and so does bladderwrack (also known as rockweed), I would guess that all algae does that, but it’s just a guess.

[snapping stems continues]

I’m also leaving all the fiddleheads (all the rolled-up bits) intact and only taking the stem . . . so I guess the fiddle neck? The finger board?

Oh, I should be frying shit right now.

Okay, I think that should do it. I’m turning the over on to 350°F, [sound of a faucet] filling up a pot of water to rinse these in [clanging pans]. While that is filling, I’ll pull down a wok. My largest frying pan these days I’ve been using for eating pancakes every workday. My work is really physically demanding. To pack in the calories, I eat pancakes and I wonder what all is in my pancakes right now. I currently have . . . hmm, there might be some whole wheat flour on top of the regular white wheat flour. I also have plantain seed flour and dock seed flour and I think have mallow seed flour, and . . . another flour of something that I foraged but I cannot remember what it is because I didn’t label the container. It definitely tastes weird, [sloshing water] but it has some real nice nuttiness to it. So I use my largest pan for that each morning so I don’t want to, I dunno, I don’t really want to have the flavor of a fried meat substitute in there.

I’m tossing in, well, let’s do some olive oil. [Sizzling pan] So the type of meat substitute I have is kind of like a wrapped plastic tube of some sausage that’s probably like like two and a half inches thick and it’s six inches long, maybe? Seven inches? This is like an imitation of that. I just threw it away . . . the name of the company is “Lite Life” and the product is “Gimme Lean”. I dunno, not a very impressive name but nobody asked me.

[Sizzling intensifies]

I’m chopping up the sausage. It also gets a little easier to chop up when it gets a little dried out, and the various things in here and proteins start to denature.

I agitated the water a bit, to get some of the scales off. To leave it in the pot instead of pouring this through colander, I’m scooping it out with my hand, picking them out by hand any bits that are still stuck to them. I’ve wondered for a long time how people who sell fiddleheads commercially get these scales off. I think the scales are mostly gone by the time you buy them and I really don’t know how you do that. Like there’s some sort of machine or something that they use to agitate it? If I had a facility to do this with one of those machines, I would definitely be selling these scales as a dietary fiber supplement.

[Aside with slightly different audio quality] Okay, so I looked it up after the fact and it turns out that the fiddleheads that don’t have scales on them are actually not lady ferns; they are ostrich ferns. Ostrich ferns span a lot of North America. They grow in the northeast, and they also grow across Canada. They do not come down from British Columbia into Washington naturally; I do believe that they are grown here commercially, and so that’s what you’ll see at a farmers market or something. [End of aside]

While this is cooking up and my fiddleheads are dripping dry, I’ll grease this pan real quick. Maybe if I was like a legitimate grown up I would have one of those sprays, but instead I’m just dumping some oil in there and moving it around with a paper towel. Sometimes I just do it with my hand because I usually wash my hand after doing this, and I might as well save a step and just use my hand to do it. I do that with leftovers, cuz I’m a legitimate adult.

[Sizzling intensifies again]

Oof! Hot!

It sure is sticking to the pan. And speaking of dirty things to do with your hands, I’ve wondered if maybe squishing this up with my hands before I put it in the pan might be a good solution. I guess if I was doing this with a meat-based sausage I would probably be hesitant to do so because then I’m getting Salmonella and E coli and all sorts of gross stuff on my hands, but one of the great things about cooking vegan is that you pretty much don’t have to worry about Salmonella at all. You know, maybe E coli occasionally when lettuce or spinach or some sort of other green has been contaminated in the fields. But also, if EVERYBODY’s eating vegan and we’re not spreading manure on the fields, then there’s no E coli in our spinach. I don’t want to be preachy about veganism because I know being preachy won’t work and I think people already hate vegans enough anyway, so I’ll let it go at that.

Well, it’s really sticking to the pan. Maybe doing this with the wok was not the right choice because I can’t really scrape the bottom of it with my spatula, but oh well, it’s vegan so it doesn’t really need to be cooked; it just has a nicer flavor and texture if you do.

[Pan clangs]

There ya go. I’ll give this a shake to distribute it around the pan. It didn’t really work, so I’ll do it with a spatula. See, I put two tubes of this in and that’s about 28 ounces and what’s that? Like three quarters of a kilo or something like that?

The pan that I’m putting this into is a glass eleven-by-nine pan. I do have one of those deep oval ceramic casserole pans, but it currently has a bog plant community living in it. I love that bog more than all of the casseroles in the world.

This is gonna be so good. Ahhhh, I’m so excited about this!

Okay, I spread the fiddleheads across the top of the sausage in the pan and yesterday I made some cream of mushroom soup. I tossed together some onions, some garlic and mushrooms and celery together in a pan, fried those up with some bay leaf. I fried that up together for a while until the juices had cooked down considerably, tad then then I threw in the soy milk, the salt and pepper and thyme and a little bit of mustard seed and some of the powdered mushrooms — the Xerocommela atropurpurea — which tasted so bad in my soup, but it tastes fine in smaller quantities. I feel like there was something else I tossed in there, but I can’t remember what. Oh! I forgot to put nutritional yeast in it; I was going to do that. I already poured this cream of mushroom soup (about a quart of it) over the top of the fiddleheads; so I think I’ll just sprinkle this nutritional yeast across it.

Now for the tots!

Oof, that’s hot.

From careful study, I have determined that this pan will fit ninety-eight tater tots in it. I think I had a different pan before that I used to be able to fit a hundred tater tots, which really bothers me because the curved edges of this glass pan — I can’t fit as many tater tots in it [unclear]. Otherwise it would be ten-by-ten tater tots.

You don’t want to just dump the tater tots in there. You need to very carefully line them up in perfect rows, side by side. The rows at either short end will have eight tater tots; every other row will have ten (cuz that’s how math works). If you go online for a tater tot casserole recipe, though, you’re gonna see a lot of recipes (I’m guess from people from, I dunno, Wisconsin or Minnesota or something) — just heathens! — who are going to be telling you to put a cheesy sauce in this instead of cream of mushroom soup. Or they’ll tell you to sprinkle cheese on the top of it.

[Pitiful meow]

I’m trying to podcast.

[Meow]

I’m trying to podcast.

[Meow]

Please stop.

[Distant meow]

If anybody ever tells you that cheese belongs in a tater tot casserole, this person does not deserve to be in your life. If you live with this person who tells you this, your only option is to burn the house to the ground; it’s unavoidable. I’m not saying with the person inside of it; I’m just saying to kind of cleanse the neighborhood just kind of the . . . the house is just tainted by now. It’s like when you have a house fire and maybe you can paint over everything and get the smell to go away, but might not ever be the same again. That’s how I feel about cheese in a tater tot casserole.

Okay, almost there. Currently I have ninety-six tater tots in the casserole pan because of the ends, and my goal is to have ninety-eight. Last time I made a tater tot casserole, the trick that I learned — oh, I’m gonna need a sharper knife that that . . . it’s a little bit hard to do because the tater tots are frozen. Sometimes you’re just going to break a tater tot, in which case you just gotta start over with a new tater tot. I will cut a tater tot diagonal, corner to corner. Pretty hard to do because it’s frozen.

See? That one broke. I need four diagonals.

Hmm, that’s not working well, either. I have a cerated knife. I don’t if it’s “sir-EIGHT-ed” or “SAIR-eighted”. I don’t know which one of those the word is.

I’ll see if I can saw through it.

[Sawing noises]

Uhm, sure that’ll work. It’s close enough.

So then I take these diagonally-cut halves, and I tuck them into each corner of the pant.

Okay, there were go! Ninety-eight.

[Clanking of knives on a cutting board]

So you don’t NEED to put anything on top of a tater tot casserole; sure as hell not putting cheese on there. But I like to just sorta pick and put some salt on the top, a little bit of garlic powder, and just a little bit of chili powder. If I had paprika I would, but isn’t paprika just a type of chili powder?

This takes about thirty five minutes to cook, and while I’m waiting for this to cook I’m gonna run out and pick up a prescription.

[Banjo]

Well, yeah so it’s been a year since I recorded that. I do remember that the casserole turned out pretty well. I did kind of wish that I had not cooked it for as long because the fiddleheads kind of gave up a lot of the juices, but they still tasted really good and they still had the distinct kind of mucilaginous texture, which I think is really good. I know mucilaginous is not necessarily an appealing descriptor of food, but those qualifies were still present in the casserole, even though I wish I had cooked it a little less long.

That said, as usual I cannot state strongly enough that it is each forager’s own personal responsibility to educate themselves about the impacts that they have on nature, the impacts they have on other humans, and the impacts that they have on themselves — consequences that are not only physical but can also be legal. The worst atrocities that humans have committed were considered legal by their contemporaries, and so many of the most beautiful aspects of the human experience have been illegal at one time or another; hell, extra-marital sex was just legalized in the state of Virginia, and it’s great! So familiarize yourself with the laws around wild collecting in your area and the rationale behind those laws, and decide for yourself if the laws make sense. Then decide for yourself whether you are willing to accept the consequences that may come not only with breaking those laws but also with following them. It is not only through law-breaking that harm is done.

Thanks again for listening! The banjo playing you’re hearing is the tune of my song “Toy Plastic Guns”; if you’d like to hear the full version, search for it by name on YouTube. If you’d like to follow my personal rants, I’m on Twitter @PopulusEyedJo. I tweet daily about gender diversity in botany and related fields @365BotanyWomen, and of course you can follow this podcast on Twitter @RadacastPodcast, and email me at radacastpodcast@gmail.com.

Every episode that I release has a transcript available in the episode notes on the show’s Medium page because it is unethical to release spoken audio content without transcript. For this purpose I’ll be giving a shout-out to another transcribed podcast each episode and this month I’m excited to tell you about Sawbones! Sawbones is a medical history podcast that is especially focused on misguided attempts at medicine. A lot of good medical science, and also some good laughs. As yet another MacElroy show, it’s a fun and easy read and/or listen. Fans of this show may enjoy their episodes on garlic and ginger, or even on horseshoe crabs and oleander.

That said, please rate and review The Radacast so that other folks can find it, too. If you don’t do it, the haters win. And if you’d like to help me get this operation off the ground, I have a Patreon page to contribute on a one-time or a monthly basis.

I look forward to talking to you all on the upcoming sixth episode of The Radacast. In the mean time, only do what promotes well-being.

And next time, who knows? Maybe it’ll be the yellow glacier lily.

[Banjo ends]

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