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PAL Questions: 2 - Garden Tools:
I have ostrich [deciduous] ferns [on the grounds I keep] and I was wondering if there is anything special that I should do for them for the winter. What I have been doing is putting ground up leaves in the bed, but beyond that, I'm not sure if there is anything else I should do.
Andrew MacHugh's book, The Cultivation of Ferns (1992) says the following (from p. 47):
"In autumn, a mulch of well-rotted leafmould, peat or bark chippings should be given to ferns planted in open sites. [...] In winter the fronds of deciduous ferns can be cut back to an inch above the crown. In areas subject to frost, the decayed fronds will provide some protection to the plant and should not be removed until the spring growth of new fronds shows signs of emerging."
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Are Bracken fern fiddleheads edible? The very old Euell Gibbons edible plant books say it's o.k. but I've heard rumors that it is toxic and shouldn't be eaten. Also, do the edible Ostrich Ferns grow in the Sultan, WA area?
The fern whose fiddleheads are most commonly (and perhaps most safely) consumed is the ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris. According to Sue Olsen's Encyclopedia of Garden Ferns, this plant will grow "in the severe and forbidding climates of Newfoundland and Alaska," but they do not do well in areas with hot summers. I imagine you would have little difficulty growing this type of fern in your area.
The University of Maine Extension has a factsheet entitled "Facts on Fiddleheads" which mentions the health risks associated with their consumption, and offers tips on how to avoid illness. Note also, this Centers for Disease Control and Prevention page on Ostrich Fern Poisoning.
An article in Fine Gardening discusses which fern fiddleheads are safe to eat.
"Throughout the world, several types of fiddleheads are eaten, though most contain toxic compounds. The most commonly eaten and most esteemed fiddlehead is that of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris, USDA Hardiness Zones 2-8), often simply called fiddlehead fern. The ostrich fern is the safest fern to eat, even though it, too, can contain toxins. The fiddleheads of cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina), and bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) can also be eaten, but all are at least mildly toxic and can cause nausea, dizziness, and headache, so it's probably best to avoid them. The safest way to eat fiddleheads is to stick to ostrich ferns and to eat them in small quantities."
Below is information specifically about bracken fern, Pteridium aquilinum.
Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants by Lewis Nelson et al. (New York Botanical Garden, 2007) says that all parts of the plant are toxic. The toxin is thought to be ptaquiloside, a sesquiterpene.
From the Earl J. S. Rook website:
"Most commonly used today as a food for humans. The newly emerging croziers or fiddleheads are picked in spring and may be consumed fresh or preserved by salting, pickling, or sun drying. Both fronds and rhizomes have been used in brewing beer, and rhizome starch has been used as a substitute for arrowroot. Bread can be made out of dried and powered rhizomes alone or with other flour. American Indians cooked the rhizomes, then peeled and ate them or pounded the starchy fiber into flour. In Japan starch from the rhizomes is used to make confections. Bracken fern is grown commercially for use as a food and herbal remedy in Canada, the United States, Siberia, China, Japan, and Brazil and is often listed as an edible wild plant. Powdered rhizome has been considered particularly effective against parasitic worms. American Indians ate raw rhizomes as a remedy for bronchitis.
Bracken fern has been found to be mutagenic and carcinogenic in rats and mice, usually causing stomach or intestinal cancer. It is implicated in some leukemias, bladder cancer, and cancer of the esophagus and stomach in humans. All parts of the plant, including the spores, are carcinogenic, and face masks are recommended for people working in dense bracken. The toxins in bracken fern pass into cow's milk. The growing tips of the fronds are more carcinogenic than the stalks. If young fronds are boiled under alkaline conditions, they will be safer to eat and less bitter."
The book Ecosystems and Human Health by Richard Philp (CRC Press, 2001) states that "considerable evidence exists that bracken fern produces bladder cancer in cattle that eat excessive amounts when better fodder is unavailable, and in rats fed large amounts of it. Because the young shoots, called fiddleheads because of their curled shape, are eaten as a delicacy in many parts of the world, including Canada and Japan, there has been concern over potential for carcinogenic effects in humans. At one point, it was suggested that the relatively high incidence of bladder cancer in Japan might be related to consumption of bracken fern. Epidemiological studies, however, have failed to demonstrate such an association, and it is now felt that eating fiddleheads does not constitute a risk factor for cancer."
This Northwest gardener, Paghat, also discusses the toxicity and edibility of bracken fern:
"While causality for human illness from eating bracken is not proven, plausibility is present. Toxins break down in cooking, but the traditional light frying or quick parboiling is insufficient to break down potentially harmful chemical components. Bracken should be cooked at high temperatures to be safe, and are quite easy to prepare correctly in woks.
It is not recommended to eat rare bracken under any circumstances because of the statistical increase in cancers in countries where brackens are a consumed in high numbers. Ostrich Ferns are of such low toxicity as to be far preferable to meet the dietary interest in fiddleheads. But as a well-cooked food item eaten only occasionally, there is no indication of risk from bracken. Plausible risk is restricted to the accumulative effects over time from consumptions of high amounts of bracken parboiled or so briefly cooked as to still contain toxins."
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January 13 2017 10:35:53