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A Walk in the Woods and a Bracken Fern Forage


A Walk in the Woods and a Bracken Fern Forage

For a city dweller who pays attention to plants, a walk in the woods can be the best part of a vacation. A vacation within a vacation. Walking in a shoreline forest in Maine where the spice of balsam fir mingles with the cold, clean scent of moss is a cool, green immersion that offers a recalibration for one’s inner gardener, as well as inspiration for a foraging cook. A constant companion to the late spring, cusp-of-summer stroll in the woods is bracken fern, its prehistorically attentive crosiers rearing up beside paths, from hummocks of moss, above the sprawl of ankle-brushing lowbush blueberry. These bracken fiddleheads are an ephemeral treat for the next night’s dinner, or a pickle to serve at picnics months hence, and seasons later.

Come along for a short walk, meet the botanical neighbors, and stay for a bracken fern snack.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: In the boreal forest, conifers create a dappled pool of shade where ferns luxuriate and clear tannic water runs quietly.
Above: The unfurling fronds of woodland-loving ostrich fern.
Above: Mature bracken fern.

Unlike many plants, whose native range is limited to a region within a continent, bracken fern – Pteridium aquilinum – seems to occupy a sneak niche in terms of its native status: It is at home almost everywhere, in every hemisphere. It is thought that the exceptional lightness of its spores contributed to its natural global distribution.

Above: A serpentine bracken fiddlehead.
Above: Sweet white violets proliferate where water runs along paths.

Where the woods are interrupted by fallen trees or granite outcropppings, sunlight floods in and the landscape changes. Lichens and lowbush blueberries intermingle (the tiny bell flower of blueberries are pollinated by peace-loving, nectar-feeding male black flies; the female packs a pernicious bite); bayberry’s new tender leaves soak up the sun; lady’s slipper orchids are in dusky bloom, luring bees with empty promises of non-existent nectar; bright white chokeberry flowers are framed by the sharp needles of spruce; and minute white violets grow with their roots where water trickles.

Above: Lowbush blueberries are an effective groundcover.
Above: Aromatic bayberry flourishes in sunny clearings and shorelines.
Above: Aronia offset by spiky spruce.
Above: Lady’s slipper orchids growing in moss, among blueberries and sheep laurel.
Above: In a shadier setting, the same orchids are a deeper pink.
Above: Within site of the ocean, this lady slipper is very pale.
Above: Bluebead lilies throng the cool woodland floor.
Above: A handful of blanched bracken fiddleheads.

Edible souvenirs whose collection does not harm the landscape are a part of almost any walk’s pleasure. Bracken fern fiddleheads—known as warabi in Japan—are a popular spring forage in that country, and also in China and Korea.  Just like the more familiar ostrich fern in the United States and Canada, bracken’s fiddleheads should be eaten in moderation as a seasonal treat, and never raw. Following East Asian preparation traditions, I first soak, then boil tender bracken (ptaquiloside, the toxin they contain when raw, is water soluble). To preserve the fiddleheads I like to souse the cooked bracken in a shoyu-warm brine.

Above: Bracken fern fiddleheads are known as warabi in Japan.
Above: Shoyu and vinegar preserve the blanched fiddleheads.

Pickled Bracken Fern Fiddleheads

These supple fiddlehead pickles are a delight. Add them to hot or cold noodles, to soups, to steamed rice, to steamed eggs, or just slurp them straight from the jar at midnight. For the brine I like an unpasteurized organic shoyu, but any soy sauce will work well.

  • 1 lb bracken fern fiddleheads
  • 2 ½ cups white wine vinegar
  • 1 ¼  cups shoyu (I use Ohsawa nama shoyu)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon Maldon flaky salt

To Collect and Soak: Collect only still-furled, tender bracken fiddleheads that snap very easily between your fingers. At home, fully immerse them in a large bowl of cool water, because they wilt fast. Leave them to soak for 24 hours, changing the water once. If any ferns have wilted and lost their firm texture, discard them.

To Blanch: After soaking for 24 hours, drain the ferns. Bring a large pot of water to the boil, and add the ferns, covering the pot to bring to a boil as fast as possible. When the water begins to boil again, cook the ferns for 4 minutes then drain. Immerse them in cold water to cool quickly. Drain, and roll up the fiddleheads in a clean kit hen towel to dry.

To Pickle: Mix together the shoyu, vinegar, sugar and salt. Stir very well until all the sugar has dissolved. Pack the now supple fiddlheads into a clean glass jar or jars, and pour the prepared brine over them. Transfer to the fridge. The pickles are delicious after a few hours, but keep well for months.

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Frequently asked questions

Is bracken fern edible.

Yes, after proper preparation, bracken fern fiddleheads are edible.

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