Not all ferns are useless. Some are edible, some have medicinal properties, and some are just ornamental, but not totally useless or purposeless.
Dr. Alka Kumari of the Institute of Himalyan Bioresources Tehnology is the fern expert of India.
We left the small village of Vashist across the Beas River from touristic Manali to hike up to a scenic waterfall. Apple orchards were in full bloom around us. As we were gaining elevation, we entered the Deodar (Cedrus deodara) forest. Up there by the waterfall viewing the valley below, a small crowd of pilgrims were paying respect to Lord Shiva. In all its simplicity a shelter more than a temple, made of stones and covered with a slate roof, was telling us about the intimate link between the source of the waters and the origin of a religion.
We waited, admiring the view and observing the people, until the crowd faded away so we could enjoy some moments of silence. As we were making our way downhill, we met two young hill ladies who were gathering something from the open meadows between the tall cedars.
We approached them, asking what they were doing and if we could take some photos. They opened their basket, producing handfuls of fern shoots. With a few words of English, we understood that they were picking the shoots to sell at the local market where they were considered a delicacy. They seemed very happy with their harvest, and we began a new project, eager to learn more about edible ferns.
Our next stop on our quest for edible ferns would take us to the city of Palampur in the Kangra Valley among tea gardens at the foot at the towering snow covered peaks of the Western Himalayas. This is where the Institute of Himalayan Bioresources Technology is located and where we met Dr. Alka Kumari of the Biodiversity department. Dr Alka is the fern expert in India. After welcoming us, her first words to us were: “No fern is useless,” and she went on enumerating a list of beneficial properties of ferns. This was strange to hear since the vast majority of ferns are toxic, having developed one of the most efficient protective system against pests (including us humans) in the plant world. Our visit started with the Institute’s fern herbarium where 300 species of native ferns are stored and actively maintained and reproduced through their spores, a sophisticated technique that Dr. Alka is one of the few to master.
We then headed to the shaded house where a lot of the ferns are grown for study and for demonstration to the public. Many of them are now used as ornamental, among them the popular species of Adiantum and the majestic Royal Fern (Osmunda) that carries spores on its spikes.
From Dr. Alka we learned that the rhizome of ferns from the Pteris family have the ability to capture arsenic from the soil; that many ferns have antimicrobial properties that can be extracted and used in modern medicine; that the species Ursia alpina, found only in glaciers, carries one of the most powerful cold tolerant genes in nature; and so on about ferns. . . Dr. Alka was sharing her knowledge and her passion with us.
But what about edible ferns? What about the fern shoots that those ladies we met in the mountains were gathering? Only two species of Himalayan ferns are edible and safe: Diplizium esculentum and Diplizium maximus. Both are found at elevations between 6000 ft and 10000 ft in the Himalayas, often in clearings among Deodar cedars. They closely resemble ferns of the Pteridium family that are also edible, but not recommended as they contain carcinogenic components. It takes real skills, comparable to identifying edible mushrooms, to differentiate edible ferns from toxic ferns at the early vegetative stage of shoots, also called fiddleheads.
The common name in the Western Himalayas for edible ferns is “lingri”. They are a seasonal source of income for the hill people and a seasonal delicacy in the months of April and May on Northern Indian tables. They are usually sautéed and eaten as a snack. They can also be added to curry sauces.
The other part of the world where edible ferns are gathered is in North America in the humid mountains of New England and of the Pacific Northwest. Those were known and gathered by the Native Americans in the same way of the hill people of the Himalayas.
One question lingered after having been seeded in our mind by Dr. Alka: Could those ferns be grown and made available to consumers, so they don’t become depleted from their natural environments? Could edible ferns be reproduced from spores to produce “shoot greens” in protected environments like greenhouses in temperate climates? Someone somewhere is probably already working on bringing fern shoots to our tables.
Recommended Reading: Fern Ecology. Edited by Klaus Mehltreter, Lawrence Walker and Joanne Sharpe – Cambridge University Press
WARNING: Some ferns are very poisonous. Do not use any of them for food unless you are certain they are edible varieties. No fern should ever be consumed raw.
Richard Bernard is the resident seed expert at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and travels the world, not just to collect seeds but also the stories that go with the seeds. Richard lives in Northern New Mexico where he manages the farmers’ market at the Pueblo of Pojoaque and is involved in supporting farming projects on tribal lands.
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