Jeff Green | Dec 10, 2009
Back to HomeOutdoors in the Land O'Lakes - December 10, 2009 Fernsby Lorraine Julien With the unusually warm weather we’ve experienced this November, I’ve noticed there are beautiful green ferns all over the place, particularly in sheltered areas on the forest floor and along pathways. Usually by now, many of them have been brushed with frost and have turned a rusty brown.
Ferns have been around for hundreds of millions of years, since the time when giant, tree-sized ferns and horsetails dominated the earth’s steamy jungles. Today’s coal deposits are derived from the buried, fossilized material in those jungles. As the earth’s climate cooled, giant ferns perished in temperate zones, leaving behind only species that buried their woody trunks underground as horizontal stems called rhizomes. Because of these underground rhizomes, ferns can seemingly pop up overnight once the earth warms a bit in the spring.
Just a few weeks after they first emerge, some of our native ferns can grow to more than 3 feet high. This is nothing, though, compared to the tropics where some tree ferns reach heights of 25 meters (80 feet) and look very much like palm trees.
A couple of the more common ferns that I see around here are the common Bracken and the pretty Maidenhair fern. Bracken is one of 45 fern species in Ontario and is by far the most common fern in the world but it is just one of some 10,000 species world-wide. In fact, they are one of the first plants to emerge from the forest floor in April. Sunlight is needed for their initial rapid growth so they absorb as much as possible before the leaves on the trees open in May.
The versatile fern has many uses – a few of which I’ve described in the next few paragraphs:
FOOD - In ancient times, native people roasted thick Bracken fern rhizomes in the fall and ground them into a flour which was high in oils and starch.
Ostrich Ferns are eaten as a gourmet vegetable when they first emerge in the spring. The first sprouts that appear are called “fiddleheads”. If you’d like to try these tender delicacies, you should pick them almost as soon as they pop through the earth, when they are still tightly curled. After they open a bit they can become somewhat bitter and lose flavour. The bitter taste is a self-defence mechanism to ward off animals or birds that might eat them.
The fiddleheads of other ferns, particularly the Bracken Fern, can be toxic and are best avoided.
HOUSE PLANTS - Many ferns are grown in horticulture as landscape plants, for cut foliage and as house plants (a well known example is the Boston fern). Something called “Air Fern” used to be quite popular – it always intrigued me, as the plant supposedly didn’t need anything but air to live. It turns out that this is not a fern at all but is something called Hydrozoan (distantly related to jellyfish and corals). They are harvested, dried, dyed green and then sold as a “plant” that can “live on air”. While it may look like a fern, it is only the skeleton of this colonial animal.
SOIL RESTORER - Ferns have been studied and found to be useful in the removal of heavy metals, especially arsenic, from the soil.
MEDICINAL USES - The Ojibway boiled Lady fern and Sensitive fern, both found in damp swampy areas, into a tea for relieving pain and helping nursing mothers to produce more milk. Fresh, crushed Lady fern was also applied to scrapes and bruises to ease pain. Ferns are sometimes used in medicine to treat cuts and clean them out – they also make good bandages if you are in the woods and have nothing else to treat a wound.
Mother Nature will have probably covered everything with a blanket of snow by the time you read this but, once winter loosens its icy grip, look closely for the tender fiddleheads popping through the warm earth next spring.