Monday, June 14, 2010

Bracken Fern: To Eat or Not To Eat?


The other day I ate a known carcinogen—a juicy char-grilled burger. I'm not alone in my cancer-baiting, certainly not this time of year when hamburgers and hotdogs are mainstays of the backyard barbecue.

But to eat a handful of stir-fried bracken fern is to seemingly court disaster in some quarters. You see, bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) is also known to contain carcinogens, specifically a substance called ptaquiloside. Never mind that bracken has been a food staple of Native Americans for centuries if not millennia, or that the Japanese also have a yen for this common fern and consider it a delicacy of spring. In fact, we might just call out these two populations on purpose, since studies have suggested their higher rates of intestinal cancer could be linked to bracken.

On the other hand, there are plenty who are suspicious of inconclusive studies and the advice of nutritionists. In his book Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants, Steve Brill says: "I wouldn't be afraid of eating reasonable quantities of wild [bracken] fiddleheads during their short season." And on his web site, Florida forager Green Deane says: "I think nearly everything causes cancer and I am willing to risk a few fiddleheads with butter once or twice a spring, which is about as often as I can collect enough in this warm place."

What to do?

I've been avoiding bracken for years because of these studies, but in the end I'd heard enough positive reports from trusted sources that I decided to give the fern a try. I'm not planning to eat huge quantities of bracken anytime soon, but to banish this ancient food from the table strikes me as equally rash.

Most of us have seen bracken before. It's a hardy fern that sometimes covers acres of land. Generally it emerges later in spring than other fern species. Its fiddleheads—if they can be called that, since they hardly resemble the typical fiddlehead form of the ostrich or lady fern—are claw-shaped, like a hawk that's squeezing its fist around around an unlucky mouse. Collect bracken when it's still tightly coiled, about six to eight inches in length; the picture above shows a specimen that is just slightly past its prime for the pot.

How I Cooked My Bracken

My friend Jon Rowley passed along these instructions from Seattle's premier sushi chef, who serves bracken at his eponymous restaurant, Shiro's.

Salt a pot of water generously and bring it to boil. Stir in the bracken, kill the heat, and allow the water to cool. This will take a little while. Next wash off the bracken under cool running water before serving. For my dish I gave the bracken an additional stir-fry with spring porcini mushrooms, a little ground pork, and splashes of sesame oil, soy sauce, and Chinese cooking wine (Xiaoxing).

The flavor is delicate. I liken it to the taste of kale or chard in the package of thin asparagus.

So what about you? Do you eat bracken or have an opinion about its edibility or lack thereof? I'd like to hear from you.

28 comments:

John in Bellingham said...

As with verpas, my opinion is the danger is overblown. While I agree that it is probably not a good idea to eat large quantities on a regular basis, I doubt these are much of a safety risk for people who don't have a sensitivity/allergy to them and don't overindulge.

Most years I eat a few meals worth. I find the taste much more assertive than you described, with some bitterness, but I'd guess that might be due to a difference in preparation. (I parboiled, but didn't let them sit in the water until it cooled.)

On a related note, a friend found some snowbank false morels (gyromitra gigas) this weekend. That's another area of extreme controversy in the forager world, although David Arora gives them the thumbs-up as a safe edible. I doubt our friends in Eugene share this view. ;)

Lo said...

I've been privileged to come across a plate of deliciously butter-laden bracken just once in my life -- and it was a delight. Each spring I vow to have the experience again... though fiddleheads seem more difficult to come by here than you might expect! So, no, I'm not too frightened. Everything in moderation, I say!

Ellen Zachos said...

I've eaten them in Japan and a few times in PA, where they are the most prevalent plant in the surrounding woods. As you say, it's a short season and I feel safe eating a limited quantity.

Le Loup said...

Personally I see no point in eating something like that unless I have to. 2-3 weeks without food and I am starving, fine, eat the ferns, but otherwise why take the risk however small. Just makes no sense to me.
With respect and regards, Le Loup.

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of wild foods, but in this case why not grow some kale in your garden and eat that. Good for you and much safer.

Claire said...

Bracken is eaten just about every day in South Korea. Deelish. It always cracked me up that I was eating something that sounded like it comes from the bottom of a swamp.. I'm quite confident that the intestinal cancer rates in S.Korea and Japan are much lower than in the US, probably due to lower rates of meat consumption and higher rates of wild food consumption! I had many an amazing meal of 'mountain herbs' while living there.

flandrumhill said...

I absolutely love fiddleheads, but given the variety of ferns available in my area, I won't eat the bracken. Too much cancer running in my family to risk it. I also wouldn't want them growing near my well.

Thag said...

We posted our thoughts on this same subject on our blog. We came to a similar conclusion. http://foragingfamily.blogspot.com/2010/05/bracken-fern-cancer-and-precaution.html

seth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
seth said...

a couple months ago i took a bike ride to my secret bracken addled greenbelt on mercer island and every inch of that acre had been picked clean; every nook and cranny. makes me wonder if those fiddleheads I bought at Uwjamaia were bracken and not ladies like I assumed

LC said...

John - Good to hear from you again. I thought this post might roust you out of your spiderhole. I'm not ready to take the Gyromitra Challenge yet!

Lo - My problem is the moderation part...

Ellen - That's what's so annoying about all this--bracken is common to the point of being considered a weed in some parts.

Le Loup - As mushroom hunters say, when in doubt, throw it out.

Anonymous - But then I couldn't stir the pot.

Claire - Swamp-eaters unite!

Flandrumhill - Some controversy about the groundwater issue. Bottom line is we need more data.

Thag - Thanks, will check out your post.

Seth - Bummer. Not sure which variety they sell at Uwajimaya. Bracken fiddleheads aren't scroll-shaped.

John in Bellingham said...

Lang - predictable this one would bring me out of the woodwork! Been a busy year and I haven't been able to get as much foraging in as I'd like to. I'll send an email with some morel info (mostly on more places they aren't, ha!)

Thag - thanks for the link to your post, you did an excellent job of addressing the subject of risk factors in foraging. Great blog as well, I will be following it!

KirstLambert said...

SO WHERE'D YOU GET THOSE SPRING PORCINI?

rebecca said...

Thanks for this post. I've been thinking about whether or not to start eating bracken again...I grew up eating bracken by the handful every spring, raw and cooked, not at all in moderation, until my parents heard about the carcinogen angle and made us all stop. I miss that flavor.

Jenny said...

So glad you posted this - I had swapped messages with Jon about bracken fern we'd had in Hawaii in March and was a little freaked about it. We didn't prepare it in the way you'd (or he'd) suggested, mostly because we didn't know how to prepare it - but maybe if we get another chance we'd try it this way instead. Great, great article though. I think people see this all the time and wonder if it's edible like a fiddlehead.

Cameal said...

I recall the flavour of bracken fern as something like a slightly bitter almond. It kind of freaked me out a bit because that's the supposedly the flavour of cyanide and bracken have a bad reputation for being cancerous. But then I consider car exhaust, cellular radiation, deodorant, cigarettes, alcohol, plastic, scented candles, etc etc etc which I'm exposed to almost daily and think: if I'm spending a day out in the wilderness and eating bracken fern, I'm still probably avoiding many other forms of cancer by getting out of the city and not using deodorant. At that point, all my concerns about it melt away and I munch the fern happily.

kate said...

Rather than taking a risk of stomach cancer, we should enjoy the non-toxic Matteuccia struthiopteris, which is a native of vermont and can be easily grown in the NW! Almost too easily, as it likes to take over, but grows very well in the dry shade.

Anonymous said...

I do eat fern shoots a lot and I guess I'm not going to worry about it. My wife is Korean and I don't know any Koreans who don't eat it. We stir fry the fern tendrils that we buy in the Korean market in packets of brine with other vegetables much the way one would cook snow peas or snap beans. When I hike in fiddlehead season I often put a little salt water in a plastic nalgene bottle and pick the shoots as I walk placing them in the bottle. Later, even days later, I can pull them out of the bottle and peel the hairs or tiny leaves off of them and heat them like beans in a pot over a fire with whatever else I have as flavoring. I've never worried much about the toxicity but then again I'm not a botanist or an expert of any kind. The only time I ever even thought about the toxins was on a recent 10 day hike in the Pasayten wilderness where there were so many shoots that I began to worry that maybe ten days of bracken might push me over the edge into some super toxic category of danger. Happily that was not the case or doesn't appear to be yet...

Sherry said...

Carcinogens are found EVERYWHERE. Hell, even celery has them! Sure, it's just another reason not to eat the evil celery but that just goes to show you that you can't avoid them all, even if you're trying your hardest.

Le Loup said...

I think the issue Sherry is how much of the Carcinogens are present. As you say, certain vegitables that we eat today contain something, but generally not enough to be a threat.
Regards.
http://livinghistory.proforums.org/

Anonymous said...

Definitely wouldn't eat it. Thankfully, there are currently plenty of things to eat, in the Western world, without resorting to bracken.

Countries like Korea and Japan, where people routinely eat bracken, have far higher rates of stomach cancer (http://www.aicr.org.uk/StomachCancerFAQs.stm), so one cannot help but suspect a link.

Given the choice, most (other) animals avoid eating it, too, unless they're literally starving and have no other alternative; so I think that should really tell you something!

Anonymous said...

I grew up eating bracken, boiled, fried, steamed, dried etc.. and being Korean it was almost a requirement. Every spring my parents hauled us off (my 2 brothers and I) up into the Cascades to forage for Bracken by the buckets.. This wasn't so bad, but it was the processing of the ferns that always got to me. Traditionally the Bracken are boiled first to remove the "hair", then set out to dry to preserve them because of their short season. This way it can be enjoyed any time. It was just the smell of boiled and drying Bracken during the 4 days was a bit much. My mother still goes out every spring into the woods where they live to forage and sells what she doesn't have room for since there's a market out there for Bracken in the Asian community who don't want to go do the work themselves!

Anonymous said...

same here. Korean ancestry and we eat bracken ferns fried with onions in soy sauce and sesame seed oil--yum. Bunch of junk about all the cancer stuff--especially when you compare longevity along with obesity rates...anyhow, was wondering if anyone knows if the ferns can be transplanted so I can grow them. My mom picked them late March or so each year but not sure where. Since losing her, I would like to continue to pick them but not sure where to look for them. Haven't had much luck...so anyone has info on where to look and how to grow them my self, please share. I don't have an URL or account so submitting as yet another anynomous.

Dan Cover said...

I live in Eastern Washington and middle of May to end of May is the best time to find Fiddlehead ferns, all depending on the weather how cool or how hot the weather. My mom is korean and she and I would go Gosari picking when I was a kid. I just went out last week and found a load of it. Today is memorial day and my husband told me he knows of another patch...must go out before it is too late. I boil and dry my gosari so I can make it last until next May. Brings back memories.We used a gas burner turkey fryer tall pot of water and do the boiling outdoors. So as to not smell up the house.


Anonymous said...

The other day I ate a known carcinogen—a juicy char-grilled burger. I'm not alone in my cancer-baiting, certainly not this time of year when trees for sale

Tania said...

My korean mother is planning to come to Seattle next month and she made it clear that I needed to find a place to pick ferns. Do you know of any places where I could find them? I know they're "everywhere," but it would be good to have a specific place...

Thanks!

Langdon Cook said...

Tania - You'll need to go up in elevation in May when your mom is here. Right now you can pick in the Cascade foothills around 500-800 ft, but I'd go higher than 1,000 ft in a few weeks, maybe 1500 ft. Just depends on the weather. Do some hiking in preparation and look for lady fern and bracken along the trail. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

In Russian Primorye region this food is EXTREMELY popular. However it's not a native Russian food, it was adopted from ethnic Korean who are common in this region. To be honest, if you ask locals they will be surprised about it cancerous properties. Actually, the same you can say about charcoal BBQ or even fried meat. Question is how you can measure this cancerous ability and how risk it is.