Dear Readers, I am off to Dorset today for my regular visit to Mum and Dad’s grave, and on the journey west I thought I’d make a note of the ‘weeds’ that I saw along the embankment between Waterloo and Dorchester South. I’m always curious about how things change, and love to speculate about why, though without a proper scientific analysis it is just that – speculation. However, after the banks of buddleia between Waterloo and Walton-on-Thames the side of the railway was completely covered for a while in bracken, and I realised that I didn’t even know what it was.
For sure, bracken is a fern, but specifically it’s Pteridium aquilinum, also known (though not, I think, in the UK) as eagle fern. It is described as a ‘large, coarse fern’, and indeed it has none of the airy beauty of some other members of the fern tribe. Why ‘eagle fern’ though? Some people have thought that the plant resembles the wings of an eagle in flight, but Linnaeus explained that a transverse section of the root reveals an eagle. I have hunted the internets for photo to support Linnaeus’s assertion but no luck yet.
Whatever else it is, it’s clear that bracken is extremely successful. it can be found in temperate and sub-tropical regions on both hemispheres, and the extreme lightness of its spores is surely the reason for its spread along the South Western Railway line – like buddleia and ragwort, the seeds are blown along by passing trains, settling in appropriate soil and setting up home. However, spread by seed is not the plant’s only strategy for reproduction – a single rhizome can penetrate to a depth of 11 feet, and can reach 49 feet in length. The shoots pop up along the length of the rhizome and can reach several feet in height before uncurling as new growth. All in all this is a rather daunting plant which can be extremely invasive in the wrong place – in Yorkshire it’s displacing heather, bilberry and other upland species in some areas, and it’s quick to take advantage of disturbed soil (it has a preference for acidic soils, but can clearly thrive in a variety of situations).
In autumn the fern starts to turn orange, and very pretty it looks too.
Bracken is also known to be carcinogenic – there is some correlation between stomach cancer and the consumption of bracken (of which more shortly), though a causal link in humans doesn’t seem to have been established. It is thought to be a cause of haemorrhagic disease in cattle and other grazing animals, and milk contaminated with the active chemical, ptaquiloside, is thought to have been responsible for an outbreak of gastric cancer in the Andean regions of Venezuela. It’s thought that ingestion of the spores, the meat from animals that have been feeding on bracken and water sources where the plants grow can all be dangerous, though there’s some evidence that dosing those who’ve come into contact with the carcinogen with selenium can help to offset the effects.
None of this has stopped people from eating the plant, however – it is the fifth most widely distributed weed species in the world, and it has been and is consumed in a variety of ways. The root was eaten during and after the First World War in the UK (though the Royal Horticultural Society now explicitly advises against its consumption). In Korea, the plant is known as gosari, and is an ingredient of bibimbap, a traditional rice dish. In Japan, it’s warabi, and a jelly-like starch made from the root is used in a dessert, while the new shoots are steamed, boiled or salted. In the Canary Islands, flour is made from the roots and then baked into a traditional bread. All these traditional methods will detoxify the carcinogen – boiling denatures it altogether, and the salt, ash and baking soda often used in the preparation of bracken will also greatly reduce the danger. Even without knowing the chemical mechanisms that cause a plant to be dangerous, people often devise workarounds to make something that is nutritious both safe and palatable. I’m always impressed by the adaptability and ingenuity of human beings.
It used to be believed that, because bracken didn’t flower, or appear to have seeds, the seeds must be invisible, and whoever held the spores of the bracken in their hand on St John’s Eve would also become invisible. Witches were said to hate bracken because its cut stem contains an ‘X’, the symbol of Christ. In Ireland, however, cutting the stem at three points was said to reveal the letters ‘G-O-D’. Between the ‘X’s, the GODs and the eagles, the stem of bracken has a lot to live up to, clearly. Rather delightfully, on the Plantlore website someone reports that if you split the stem of bracken you would see an image of Charles II hiding in an oak tree, and wonders what people saw before the reign of Charles II. However, in Scotland the plant is said to hold the image of the devil’s foot, so clearly it’s not all good.
And finally, a poem. Edward Thomas wrote all his poetry during the period 1914-17, and he died in the Battle of Arras in 1917. His poetry conjures the beauty of the English countryside at this period, but there is also a sense of something lurking that will destroy it, not just the war but the creeping industrialisation of agriculture and the sense that things are changing irrevocably. See what you think of this poem, ‘The Lane’.
BY EDWARD THOMAS
Some day, I think, there will be people enough
In Froxfield to pick all the blackberries
Out of the hedges of Green Lane, the straight
Broad lane where now September hides herself
In bracken and blackberry, harebell and dwarf gorse.
Today, where yesterday a hundred sheep
Were nibbling, halcyon bells shake to the sway
Of waters that no vessel ever sailed …
It is a kind of spring: the chaffinch tries
His song. For heat it is like summer too.
This might be winter’s quiet. While the glint
Of hollies dark in the swollen hedges lasts—
One mile—and those bells ring, little I know
Or heed if time be still the same, until
The lane ends and once more all is the same.
Photo One by By Rasbak – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=217090
Photo Two by Ilka Christof, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Three By Sous Chef – https://www.flickr.com/photos/140536182@N03/40636664921/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67604999