Fiddleheads of bracken fern unfurl in imperceptible increments as their stems grow taller this month. I welcome bracken ferns as they open and by summer they cover, as my mother would have said, “a multitude of sins.” They act as transition thicket where they surround upright columns of Doug fir, decorate edges along fields, and complicate with pattern, patches of wild rose and salal. But I know bracken has an ambivalent reputation.
Gertrude Jekyll had patience with and fondness for bracken. From her I learned how it is I can see, from upstairs in the house, the unmistakable texture of bracken far back in a small patch of impenetrable forest. She writes: “The height to which the bracken grows is a sure guide to the depth of soil. On the poorest, thinnest ground it only reaches a foot or two; but in hollow places where leaf-mould accumulates and surface soil has washed in and made a better depth, it grows from six feet to eight feet high, and when straggling up through bushes to get to the light a frond will sometimes measure as much as twelve feet.”
Richard Mabey tells us in “Flora Britannica” that a 13-foot tall bracken was recorded in an English forest. For his cultural flora, a book not just about plants but about their use by people, Mabey listened to the stories of regular people, farmers and preachers who have lived with and used these plants all their lives. He devotes pages to bracken, quoting folks who employ it as bedding for animals, as mulch, or as packing material.
One of the first things the wordsmith said to me when we met was that gardeners in Washington often don’t like bracken, it can be as Mabey says “abundant and aggressive.” It would be hard to argue with what is a native plant here (and most everywhere in the world).
And impossible for me to argue with its beauty – either now with its head and arms offered up to spring sun, or in green summer, feathery finery trembling in a breeze (always green no matter the drought). Best of all, I enjoy the sienna-hued collapse of crispy bracken in the fall as it swoons over a stand of salal along the driveway, for all the world like a planned display.
Bracken is “toxic to all animals” according to Mabey – and he and Pojar are both quick to point out these are not fiddleheads to eat in the spring. But they are fiddleheads to admire.