Common Bracken – Pteridium Aquilinum: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Sunny Fern of Wild Plants

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Common bracken (pteridium aquilinum) is a popular edible, especially in the far east. But like most edible fiddleheads it’s complicated. Not preparing it thoroughly may be linked to stomach cancer.

Common bracken (pteridium aquilinum) is traditionally edible and medicinal in many places, but unfortunately a compound in it is potentially linked to stomach cancer. It’s called brake fern sometimes. You may want to put the brakes on your plans to eat it raw, but prepared correctly and eaten in moderation it is likely okay. Yet again, beyond ostrish fern fiddleheads and perhaps lady fern, our fern features are complicated. ID-ing them is difficult too. I am pretty sure one I had validated on iNat as braken is actually marsh fern. Apps and even ID groups are never 100% correct.

Braken is common in cottage country, Ontario. It likes open barren sites, partly treed fields and dry ditches. It often forms large colonies. They are one of the first fiddleheads to come up in the springtime, and unlike ostrich fern they produce fronds throughout the growing season.

Common bracken (pteridium aquilinum) in the summer
Common bracken (pteridium aquilinum) in the summer
Common bracken (pteridium aquilinum) in the fall
Common bracken (pteridium aquilinum) in the fall

Edible Uses of Common Bracken

Many sources will call these “highly edible” fiddleheads, but you need to at least prepare them with caution. After rubbing the fronds free of hairs, soak them in salt water to remove the bitterness, and more importantly to help remove the carcinogenic compound ptaquiloside. This compound is water soluble. Boiling helps too, so I don’t recommend eating them raw although some folks do that. Salt or baking soda in the water may help remove the compound. Don’t eat the unfurled fronds and eat the prepared fiddleheads in moderation.

The rhizomes may be peeled and roasted or steamed, or peeled and pounded to harvest the starch from them. This flour is sold commercially as “warabi starch”.

Bracken are a traditional vegetable in much of the far east. In Korea for instance, it is known as gosari and is a classic addition to bibimbap, a popular dish in Korean restaurants even hereabouts.

Medicinal Uses of Common Bracken

Common Bracken is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Digestive
  • Integumentary

Medicinal tags include Antiemetic, Antiseptic, Diuretic and Vermifuge. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes rhizomes boiled into a strong tea for worms and complaints like stomach cramps. The roots are also used as a poultice for sores and burns. However, there are herbs/treatments used more commonly for these with less toxic ingredients.

Bracken is found worldwide and comes with a worldwide variety of other folk remedy uses.

Marsh fly on common bracken (pteridium aquilinum)
Marsh fly on common bracken (pteridium aquilinum)

Alternative Uses of Eagle Fern

The rhizomes lather in water and can be used for soaps or as a hair rinse.

The tannins can be used to tan leather.

The fronds make a yellow-green to brown dye.

Burning the leaves may repel mosquitoes.

The leaves resist decay making them useful for packing, bedding, thatching.

Growing Pteridium Aquilinum

Same as lady and male fern, brake fern is also likely to hold its own against many invasive plants. But bracken is different in that it likes sunny dry stretches. And it should spread vigorously. It will provide both food, especially for some moth larvae, and leafy cover for wildlife. The website notes nests of the indigo bunting and chestnut-sided warbler have been found therein! This month’s Wood Folk diary, going out the day after this post, is about fritillary butterflies. They are often seen fluttering above the brake.


Likely cacogenic if not prepared correctly.

Toxic to livestock.

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants

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