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Scott Williams

Questions about Ethnobotany?

Scott Clay-Poole, PhD

Ethnobotany - Ferns and Fern-Allies

Ferns & Fern-Allies

Blechnum spicant (Deer-fern)
Dryopteris sp. (Spiny wood fern)
Equisetum telmateia (Giant horsetail)


Polypodium glycyrrhiza (Licorice fern)
Polystichum munitum (Sword fern)
Pteridium aquilinum (Bracken)

By Scott Clay-Poole, PhD 

Blechnum spicant - Deer Fern

Blechnum spicant - Deer fern
Polypodiaceae (Polypody Family)

Medium-sized, evergreen, tufted fern growing from a short, stout rhizome. Fronds of two kinds: sterile fronds often pressed to the ground, green and leathery; stipes purplish-brown, leaflets progressively reduced towards the top and bottom. Fertile fronds upright, arising from center of clump, deciduous and with much narrower leaflets that are sometimes rolled in near-tubes around the sori. Sori are continuous, distributed near the margin, and protected by a continus translucent brown indusium attached close to the leaflet edge.

Habitat:  Moist to wet forests, wet slide areas under alder, stream-banks, occasionally in bogs; lowlands to subalpine elevations of western Washington.

Use: The young leaves of deer fern were chewed by some as a hunger suppressant. The leaves were used as a medicine for skin sores.

[Pojar & McKinnon, 1994; Turner, 1995


Dryopteris sp. - Spiny wood fern
Dryopteris expansa - Spiny Wood Fern, Shield Fern
(aka Dryopteris austriaca)
Polypodiaceae (Polypody/Common Fern Family)

Fronds clustered, erect and spreading to 3 feet tall. Rhizomes stout, ascending to erect, clothed with chaffy, brown scales. Frond stipes scaly at the base; blades broadly triangular to egg-shaped to broadly oblong, 3 times pinnate; leaflets 5-20 pairs, the lowest pair broadly triangular and asymmetrical; ultimate segments toothed; the 2 basal ones much larger than the others and spur-like. Sori are rounded, partially covered by the rounded indusium.

Habitat: Moist forests and openings, scree slopes, from low elevations to subalpine on the western side of Washington.

Use: Raw rhizomes are bitter, but when cooked, they are said to be sweet-tasting. Details of the use of this important fern and of the difficulties identifying it are provided in a recent article by Turner et al (1993)(see Note). The rhizomes of the spiny wood fern were dug up around the end of September. At this time, the rhizomes are surrounded by scaly, finger-like projections, which are actually the beginning of next year's growth. If the projections are flat and dark inside, the rhizomes are not good to eat; but if they are round, fleshy and light-colored, the rhizomes are edible. They were cooked overnight in steaming pits, or steamed in kettles. The finger-like projections could be broken off, peeling like bananas and eaten with Grease or "stink egg" (fermented salmon roe). Some First Peoples compare the taste of spiny wood fern rhizomes to that of sweet potatoes.

The rhizomes of this species or Male fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) can also be eaten raw. But the rhizomes are bitter and have strong laxative properties. People of European background have used them as a vermifugant (de-worming medicine).

[Turner, 1995

Turner, N.J. & A. Davis. 1993. When everything was scarce: the role of plants as famine foods in northwestern North America. Journal of Ethnobiology 13(2):1-28.


Equisetum telmateia - Giant Horsetail
Equisetum telmateia - Giant Horsetail
Equisetaceae (Horsetail Family)

Herbaceous perennial growing from deep, branching rhizomes. The stems are annual, jointed, hollow, except at the joints, and rough or scratchy to the touch. They are of two types (as shown in the photograph): light-colored, non-branching fertile shoots about 20 cm (8") high (with cone 4-10 cm long), which appear early in spring and die back as soon as the spores are produced; and green vegetative shoots having 20-40 vertical, epidermal ridges that grow up to 45 cm (18") or more, with many slender branches borne in whorls from the nodes. The latter appear after the fertile shoots, and remain until fall. Leaves are reduced to papery sheaths surrounding each node.

Habitat: Moist to wet places, stream-banks, swamps, seepage areas, gullies, roadside ditches, usually near standing or flowing water, often forming dense colonies at low to middle elevations west of the Cascade Mountain crest.

Use: The succulent shoots - both spore-bearing and vegetative - were eaten raw or boiled. To eat the shoots, the papery sheathing leaves and, on the vegetative shoots, the young branches, were peeled off, and the stem portion, especially the tender inside part on the lower part of the stalk, was eaten, usually with a dressing of seal oil or some other type of oil. Tough, fibrous portions were chewed and discarded. Additionally, small "bulbs" attached to the root-stock were eaten cooked, or occasionally raw, by some First Peoples with salmon eggs or with whale/seal oil. The hollow stems of this species and others frequently contain water, and this was believed to be safe for drinking even when nearby water was contaminated.

Within the cell walls is silica. The stalks were used for polishing dishes, shining finger nails, and polishing arrow shafts. Portions of the black roots were often woven into baskets for designs.

Horsetails are known to be toxic to livestock, and contain thiaminase, an enzyme that destroys thiamine and hence can cause thiamine deficiency. They also contain silicates, especially in the cells of mature plants, making them "scratchy" to the touch, and too tough to eat except in their young stage. However, there is no evidence that giant horsetail caused any problems for First Peoples in the quantities used and at its young growth state when normally eaten. But to be safe, never eat the green vegetative shoots, and eat the fertile shoots only in small quantities with extreme caution.

[Hitchcock & Cronquist, 1973; Kuhnlein and Turner, 1991; Lombardi, 1996


Polypodium glycyrrhiza - Licorice fern, Polypody fern
Polypodium glycyrrhiza - Licorice / Polypody Fern
Polypodiaceae (Polypody/Common Fern Family)

Licorice fern is a small fern up to 12 inches. It is named for its licorice-flavored rhizomes. The rhizomes are perennial, often more that 6" long, roundish, about 5mm thick, branching and shallow, and yellowish-green. The fronds are once-pinnate, coarse and light green, often deciduous in the dry summer, bearing new fronds in the autumn. The pinnae are generally in 10 to 20 offset pairs, toothed, pointed and diminishing in length at the tip of the frond but otherwise about equal in length. The sori are round, orange, lacking indusia, occurring in two rows along the underside of the pinnae.

Habitat: On wet mossy ground, logs and rocks, sometimes forming large sheets over rock slabs, or more commonly on tree trunks and branches, often Bigleaf Maple; at low elevations.

Use: The sweet licorice-flavored rhizomes were chewed for the flavor by many First Peoples. Occasionally the rhizomes were dried, steamed, scorched or eaten raw. The rhizomes were an important medicine for colds and sore throats. The rhizomes were also mixed with bitter medicines as a sweetener.

[Pojar & McKinnon, 1994


Polystichum munitum - Sword fern
Polystichum munitum - Sword Fern
Polypodiaceae (Polypody/Common Fern Family)

Large (to 3 feet tall), evergreen, with erect fonds forming a crown from a stout, woody, scaly rhizome. Stipe is dry-scaly, blade is lance-shaped, erect to arching, singly-pinnate, with alternate pinnae, having sharp teeth with incurved spine-tips, each with a small lobe pointing forward at the bottom. Sori are large, circular, located about halfway between the midvein and the margin giving the underside of a frond an orange color from the twin rows of these spore cases. The indusium is round with fringed margins, and centrally attached.

Habitat: Moist forest at low to middle elevations (Coastal Forest Zone); abundant and widespread.

Use: Sword fern fronds were usde by First Peoples as a protective layer in traditional pit ovens, between food in storage boxes and baskets and on berry-drying racks. The fronds were also used as flooring and bedding. The large rhizomes were dug in the spring (with some tribes the rhizomes were only eaten as a starvation food). The rhizomes were roasted over a fire or steamed in a traditional pit oven, then peeled and eaten. Some tribes ate the cooked rhizomes to cure diarrhea.

[Pojar & McKinnon, 1994


Pteridium aquilinum - Bracken, Brake-fern

Pteridium aquilinum - Bracken, Brake-fern
Polypodiaceae (Polypody Family)

Bracken are often up to 5 feet tall. The rhizomes are perennial, often 8" deep, running horizontally for long distances, often branching. The rhizomes can be as thick as 2 cm, black outside with numerous hairs, and white and glutinous inside with tough longitudinal fibers in the middle. The fronds are borne individually along the rhizome (unlike most ferns that cluster their fronds from a central compact base), and have tall, smooth, light-green stems and coarsely branching pinnae. The fronds and lower pinnaae are broadly triangular in shape. The pinnules are numerous and deeply toothed, and the sori, when present, are marginal and mostly continuous, covered by an inrolled leaf margin.

Habitat: Meadows, roadsides, clearings, sterile sandy soils, burns, avalanche tracks, dry to wet forests, acid sites such as lake-shores and bogs; often weedy, at low to subalpine elevations. Rhizomes are deep giving it the ability to survive even intense fires.

Use:  Several groups boiled and ate the fiddleheads of Bracken. Virtually all coastal groups use the rhizomes as food. Most dug them up in late fall or winter. They coiled up the rhizomes and allowed them to dry. Later, they roasted them in an open fire until the outer skin could be peeled off, then pounded the inner parts with a stick. After removing the tough, central fibers, they ate the whitish starchy inside, usually with fish eggs or oil, because it was constipating. One tribe broke the rhizomes into pieces four finger-widths long and ate them with salmon eggs or Grease. Another group also steamed the rhizomes in pits, when there were too many to roast.

Another tribe made a type of bread by pounding the roasted rhizomes into flour, mixing this with water, and forming the dough into flat cakes, which were then roasted.

More about the Bracken and its use as a food with First Peoples can be learned from Norton, H.H. 1979a. Evidence for Bracken Fern as a food for aboriginal peoples of western Washington. Economic Botany 33:384-396.

Bracken leaves and hay contaminated with Bracken are known to be poisonous to livestock when eaten in large amounts. The toxic ingredient is an enzyme, thiaminase, which destroys the animals' thiamine (B-vitamin) reserves.

[Pojar & McKinnon, 1994; Turner, 1995]