Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bracken Fern

Today I experimented with some Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum) rhizomes that I collected in the Cowichan Valley last week.  It appears from the ethnographic literature that the rhizomes were used variously in the fall after the fronds die, or in the spring just as the fronds emerged.  The frond was dead on the specimen I harvested, but it was intact enough for me to stand it up to its full height of seven feet.  I dug into the ground with my small digging stick and found the ground to be difficult to dig even though there were only sporadic cobbles in the loamy soil.  I imagine that annual harvest of rhizomes would keep the soil aerated enough for easy harvesting.  The rhizome was as thick as my thumb and longer than I could unearth to see.  It was very smooth with black bark.  There were a few branches and at the end of smaller branches I found the dead growing tip of a previous year’s frond.  I read that only the rhizomes that were juicy were eaten, and I could easily see that the dead portion of the rhizome was not good to eat; the live portions were indeed juicy.  Shin tasted the milky juice and found it mildly sweet.  After harvesting the rhizome I left it in the car until today and it dried out considerably making the bark wrinkle longitudinally.  I read that the rhizomes were roasted on coals, or steamed in earth ovens, but I didn’t have a good way of doing either, so I boiled some and baked some.  The baking quickly rendered a very hard and brittle product that I couldn’t remove the bark from.  I should have tried pounding it, but didn’t have a hammer handy.  The boiled rhizome rehydrated considerably, which enabled me to slice off the black skin.  I was also able to slice along the fibrous layers inside the rhizome, but the amount of starch between the layers was so thin that I couldn’t imagine this technique being very practical.  Next time I want to try and pound or sear and pound the fresh rhizome.
Cross section of Bracken Fern rhizome showing a matrix of starch (white) surrounding tough fibrous material (brown).

I purchased some copper (in the form of a firewood rack) at the second hand store in the hopes of making a berry rake.
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