Ferns have helped me to tune into the forest. When I first started to visit Stanley Park more regularly, I began to jot down my sightings in a journal. My first entry, from October 2012, has a sketch of some horsetail and a shrub, an observation about the size of the autumn maple leaves, and a fern mention: “I also noticed the ferns, possibly because they are closest to the ground. They are so fluffy and perky, like mohawks or pompoms ready to make mischief."
Ferns were also one of the first things on my radar in the springtime: “ferns that grow like fiddleheads” was under my list of sightings from early April. What I saw were tiny fern plants emerging from the forest floor. They had two inner stems growing from them, but these stems did not look like ferns! They each had a tip that was tightly coiled into itself, and appeared from a distance to be solid and juicy, like a curly piece of asparagus. I had seen something like this at the grocery store in years previous – fiddleheads, they were called, and were touted to be quite delicious. Wait, I thought to myself. Is a fiddlehead… a fern? When people eat fiddleheads, are they eating ferns?
A week later, I asked my fiddlehead/fern question to a nature-loving acquaintance. She confirmed that yes, fiddleheads are indeed newly-growing fern leaves. I, thrilled by this information, asked my acquaintance if she had ever gathered fiddleheads from Stanley Park for a locally-sourced springtime meal. She said she hadn’t, for two reasons: one, because the Vancouver Park Board does not allow anyone to take anything from the park, and secondly, because she wasn’t sure if she could identify which fern species were edible and which were toxic to humans. Good point!
I had a look at the Spring 2013 issue of Edible Vancouver, my local foodie magazine, and was lucky to find Alexander McNaughton’s article, “Chefs in the Wild” (p. 35-38) – a great write-up on foraging fiddleheads. In addition to giving good advice on how to forage responsibly (i.e. standing on stones and logs to avoid impacting the ground and only taking one or two fiddleheads from each fern so as not to excessively delay its growth), he also offers up some info on which fiddleheads you can eat and which to avoid. From what I’ve read, the consensus seems to be that the bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) is to be avoided, as it has been linked with instances of stomach cancer, and the lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) is the reliably edible one to be looking for if you go foraging in coastal BC (but please do more thorough research and speak to somebody in the know if you wish to begin harvesting wild edibles). McNaughton suggests seeking out Athyrium alpestre, a.k.a. the alpine lady fern, which lives at higher elevations.
To broaden my knowledge of ferns, I also took a flip through A Natural History of Ferns (2004) by Robbin C. Moran. This book was quite dense with scientific information, and a little too advanced for me, but still made a good effort to describe ferns in an engaging way (he begins a discussion of fern spores by relating a scene from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, for example). Moran is a Curator of Botany at the New York Botanical Garden, and also researches ferns in Central America and the Andes, so his focus in this book was quite a bit broader than the bit of coastal British Columbia that I am observing. However, I really enjoyed his chapter on the bracken fern (he breaks down, scientifically, the various ways in which they are poisonous to animals and humans).
I also found Moran’s chapter on fiddleheads to be very interesting. He discusses what causes the curled shape of the fiddlehead – the cells on the inner side of the leaf are initially shorter than those on the outer side. When the growth rate of the inner cells begins to catch up with that of the outer cells, the fern leaf begins to uncurl. Good to know! He also notes the mathematical beauty of the fiddlehead – it is an example of an equiangular spiral, which also occurs in nautilus sea shells, spiral galaxies, and the path of an insect flying toward a light source.