Lady Fern – Athyrium Filix-femina: Edible & Medicinal Uses of an Alt Fiddlehead of Wild Plants

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In Chippewa, a’sawan, lady fern (athyrium filix-femina) is another edible fiddlehead in Ontario. It is tricky to tell the edible and medicinal ferns from the entirely toxic and even poisonous ones. And then even the edible ones are often toxic if not prepared correctly.

Lady fern (athyrium filix-femina), called upland lady fern in Haliburton Flora, is common here. You might find it in damp ditches and moist open sites. A place I work at has a mix of conifers and deciduous trees with these ferns throughout the forest floor, along one back side of their yard. It’s wonderful looking. Lady fern is one of our most ornamental native ferns.

Lady Fern - Athyrium Filix-femina
Lady Fern – Athyrium Filix-femina

Edible Uses of Lady Fern

Lady fern is one of the edible fiddleheads, the most famous being ostrich fern. Their young unfurled fronds are edible in small quantities when cooked, but they are very bitter. Same as ostrich fern, they have a texture like asparagus. Remove the papery bits as best you can. And remember not to take too many fiddleheads form any fern, as overharvesting will kill the plant.

While most internet sites say the rhizome of this fern can be peeled and baked, it contains an oil that is toxic and can be fatal in large doses.

And as with everything, properly ID-ing the species is critical. Ferns can be harder to ID, like mushrooms. Many ferns contain carcinogens and some can cause severe or fatal health problems.

Medicinal Uses of Lady Fern

Lady fern is primarily said to support these body systems:

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Medicinal tags include Anthelmintic, Astringent, and Diuretic. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage is that oil from the rhizomes was historically used to get rid of worms (and same with the more potent “male fern” which we will be posting about on the 19th). However, too much of this oil can cause severe damage, and an overdose might even kill you. There are much safer ways to deal with intestinal worms now!

Perhaps it’s because of this same oil that a tea of boiled roots or stems had historically been used for easing labour pains, and other childbirth related reasons.

Lady Fern - Athyrium Filix-femina fiddleheads
Lady Fern – Athyrium Filix-femina; fiddleheads

Alternative Uses of Upland Lady Fern

Like ostrich fern, lady fern is one of the native plant species that can out compete invasive garlic mustard (a nonnative that wipes out swaths of native plants, destroying biodiversity). It’s recommended to plant the fern at a density of about 10 plants per square meter and use other control methods concurrently. (There are many other choices including Canada anemone, waterleafs, zigzag goldenrod.. if you have an invasive problem I’d recommend finding your state or provincial “native plants” group on your preferred social media to get ample details.)

Lady fern may also signal the presence of water.

Growing Athyrium Filix-femina

Like most ferns, it prefers moist, well drained shade gardens. But it may tolerate sun and dry soil. You can find these plants at native plant shops or propagate the rhizome yourself if you know someone with a forest floor full in their yard too.

It’s deciduous and will drop its fronds in the Autumn. In the summer as a large colony under a canopy of trees ferns are stunning. Their main known value to nature is as cover. But I betcha ferns have more to them than meets the eye.


Avoid consuming if pregnant or trying to conceive; the oil in this plant may cause abortions.

And the Usual Cautions:

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

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

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

How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts (Native American)

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