Pteridium aquilinum – Western bracken fern
At a Glance
- Family: Dennstaedtiaceae
- Plant type: fern
- Distribution: native to the lower US states, Alaska and Hawaii, and Canada, and found on all continents (except Antarctica). One of the most widely distributed plants in the world.
- Habitat: grows well in many habitats from woodlands to open pastures and burnt-out areas, and moist to slightly dry soils. Manages both shade and sunny locations.
- Height: 2-4’
- Spores: reproductive sori with spores are found along the underside edges of the leaflets. The plants can also spread through a rhizome network
- Leaves: broad light green fronds up to 3’ long, one frond is made of many divided leaflets, rounded edges on each leaflet. Frond is generally triangular in shape and 2-3 times pinnate.
- Generation: perennial, dies back with frost
- Notable features: bracken release allelopathic chemicals (biochemicals that influence germination/growth/reproduction/survival of other organisms) that suppress the growth of other plants
Restoration and Conservation
- As bracken fern is mildly toxic, few bugs or animals eat it
- It easily establishes in disturbed, high light environments and can create monospecific stands
- Commonly eaten by the people of western Washington to provide starch and fiber. Bracken rhizomes were crushed down into a flour, with methods varying between groups, then baked or dried into cakes and bread
- The rhizomes themselves could also be roasted, dried and stored, or eaten fresh
- Studies have indicated the presence of carcinogenic compounds in bracken, with consumption by humans possibly increasing the risk of stomach or throat cancer
- Usually not planted in home gardens because of its allelopathic chemicals. Best placed in isolated areas where it can form clumps/stands
- Can tolerate intense heat well, so it can be planted near asphalt driveways. However, bracken fern is also able to force its way through several inches of asphalt.
- Norton, H.H. Evidence for bracken fern as a food for aboriginal peoples of western Wwashington. Econ Bot 33, 384–396 (1979). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02858334
- WTU: https://biology.burke.washington.edu/herbarium/imagecollection/taxon.php?Taxon=Pteridium%20aquilinum
- USDA: https://plants.sc.egov.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=PTAQ
For questions regarding the St. Edward State Park EERC Native Plant Guided Tour, contact Sarah Verlinde-Azofeifa at firstname.lastname@example.org.