The Incredible Edible Fern

Whether you’re writing a fantasy, a historical, or a camping story set in modern times, your protagonist needs to know what part of the flora is edible and what to avoid. In my last post, I discussed some of the green things that become available in early spring. Today’s post is all about the wonderful fern.

There are a kajillion species of fern, and not all of them are edible. The bracken fern, for instance, is fine for cows but causes stomach cancer in humans. So don’t let your protagonist eat that one. But there are other varieties that are not only acceptable for dinner fare, but downright delicious. Like this one:

This is licorice fern. It grows on deciduous trees and branches, so you have to do a bit of climbing to get to them. But they’re worth it. The stem, when chewed, tasted like licorice. They can also be eaten dried, steamed, or scorched, but raw is really the best. They can also be used for flavoring in a stew (although I’ve never known anyone who wanted a licorice-flavored stew) or used to sweeten something that’s not so sweet (like sweetgale tea). When I took a home-schooling class into the woods to sample the available goodies, this one was a favorite of the kids. As an added bonus, licorice fern is useful as a remedy for colds and sore throats.

This is deer fern, a plant found in the understory in wet forests, and an important food source for deer and elk during the winter. Your protagonist won’t want to make a full meal of this treat, but chewing the leaves acts as a hunger suppressant to tide him over until he finds something more substantial. It’s also a great medicine for skin sores. I don’t know how this one tastes, as I’ve never sampled it before, nor could I find the answer on the internet. Maybe it doesn’t taste that great. I have one in my backyard, so if I get adventurous, I’ll share my results. Don’t hold your breath, though.

Those first two ferns won’t satisfy the hunger pangs like this last one. 

This is the ostrich fern fiddleheads, the new growth that sprouts every spring from the base plant. Scrape off the brown scales, steam, then  slather in melted butter. Yum. I’ve been told they taste like a mash-up of asparagus and green beans, although I haven’t tried them. But your character could live off these babies in the early spring until they start to unfurl. Then they become too bitter.

That concludes the edible fern lesson for today. I hope it was helpful. Next time we’ll discuss some of the tasty tidbits found near water.


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