Plants from Another World
text & photos : Norma A. Hubbard (June 2020)
I love ferns. They seem like plants from the realm of fairies. When I was young, I remember my mother telling me she loved fiddleheads, so one day I went into the woods and came back with a bag of ‘fiddleheads’. When I proudly presented them to my mother, she said, “What is this?” I was surprised she didn’t know. I replied, “Fiddleheads?” She was obviously not impressed and said in disgust, “These are not fiddleheads! Throw them away.” What I know now, that I didn’t know then, is that many ferns produce a type of ‘fiddlehead’, but, only the Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) is considered the fiddlehead fern and is edible!
The name fiddlehead comes from the shape of new ferns as the fronds are tightly curled and resemble the head of a fiddle. Ferns are classified as Pteridophytes, which comes from the Greek root pteri, meaning feather. As the fronds open, lovely feather-like leaves are produced. According to the Government of Canada’s Health and Food site, food poisoning can occur if fiddleheads are not prepared properly, which includes boiling or steaming; fiddleheads should not be eaten raw. Some ferns are quite toxic and should not be consumed. Eat only the fiddleheads of Ostrich ferns. No wonder my mother told me to throw away the ferns I brought to her. That being said, well-prepared fiddleheads are a good source of antioxidants, omega acids, iron, and fibre. The Farmer’s Almanac has several recipes on how to prepare fiddleheads.
Ferns grow all over our area, many of us grow them in our gardens. Ferns are beautiful plants and some ferns, such as the Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) even stays green in winter. Most ferns prefer shade with moist soil and once a plant is established, it will grow with little to no maintenance. In April and May, bright green ferns begin to sprout among the dried leaves of the forest floor giving us one of the first signs of spring.
Ferns reproduce mainly by spores, which can be found on the leaves and need water to reproduce. Ferns can also reproduce by root-like structures, rhizomes, which grow into new ferns. While science is interesting, I am not alone in thinking ferns seem to belong to another world.
Fossil evidence proves ferns were on earth before dinosaurs, making ferns very old and a bit mysterious. The Enchanted Living Magazine has several legends about ferns. When it was first discovered that ferns had no flowers for reproduction, it became legend that ferns were magical. It was thought, ferns bloomed only at midnight on summer’s eve. It was believed if you possessed a seed, you could become invisible. It was also believed that a potion with fern fronds could restore sight. Another tale includes a Duchess who carelessly blinds a merman’s sons, he places a curse upon her son. To remove the curse, she spreads fern seeds over the merman’s lake singing:
“The fern-seed right and left I strew,
Mer-man, for your babies three;
I grieve that I did wrong to you.
Fern-seed maketh eyes to see.”
It apparently worked and the curse was lifted. Good fortune and wealth are associated with ferns, yet a word of caution, one legend tells the tale of a boy who stole a fern seed in order to obtain great wealth. The catch was the wealth could not be shared, so he kept to himself and gave up the ones he loved in order to keep his fortune. Sadly, he died alone and bitter. During this pandemic, as many of us live in isolation, I am sure most of us would give up a fortune if it meant we could be with loved ones again. Until isolation is no longer in place, remember, we are surrounded by the magic of nature, and it is scientifically proven, nature has the power to keep us calm and bring us peace, which is a very special type of wealth.
Sources: Government of Canada Food and Health [online]; The Enchanted Living Magazine [online];