Wood Ferns – Dryopteris SPP.: Inedible Fiddlehead of Not So Edible & Medicinal Wild Plants

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Also known as male ferns, wood fern’s fiddleheads are toxic. If you’re going to eat ostrich or lady ferns, it’s good to know their look-a-likes like this species!

Wood ferns (dryopteris spp.) are toxic lookalikes to our edible ferns (ostrich, lady, the related Christmas fern..) We have numerous species of wood ferns. Common around Haliburton, Ontario is spinulosa wood fern (d. carthusiana), crested shield (d. cristata), evergreen wood (d. intermedia), and marginal shield (d. marginalis).

And uncommon to rare hereabouts you may find hybrid ferns x boottii and x triploidea, as well as fragrant wood (d. fragrans) and Goldie’s fern (d. goldiana). Hybrids make it even more complicated! In Ontario as a whole there are around 17 species, about half of which are hybrids.

Wood Ferns - Dryopteris SPP.
Wood Ferns – Dryopteris SPP.

Edible Uses of Wood Ferns

Unlike our one lady fern, male ferns are almost all poisonous from the rhizomes to the leaves. There are so many here it would be hard to ID a particular species, and they hybridize just to add to the confusion.

D. carthusiana may be our one local exception, with rhizomes that need to be peeled and put through a few hours of boiling or roasting. Yet the rhizomes that are dark inside when eaten raw can cause coma and death. This is one of those extreme foraging plants I can’t recommend trying and would personally pass on. And I can’t do a post on ferns without saying because of the difficulty ID-ing and the potential toxicity it’s expert-master level to go beyond properly identified ostrich ferns.

Medicinal Uses of Wood Ferns

Male fern is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • X

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

Common usage historically includes oil from the rhizomes of male fern to expel tapeworms. The component “filicin” paralyses worms and other internal parasites. This was taken at a specific dose along with a special diet and non-oily laxatives. But mishandled/administrated by someone unqualified, this treatment can cause blindness and death, and there are much safer alternatives now.

Marginal Wood Fern (Dryopteris marginalis)
Marginal Wood Fern (Dryopteris marginalis)

Alternative Uses of Male Ferns

The fronds soaked in water can be used to make a hair rinse, but note male fern can also irritate sensitive skin.

Intermediate Wood Fern
 (Dryopteris intermedia)
Intermediate Wood Fern (Dryopteris intermedia)

Growing Dryopteris SPP.

The male fern (dryopteris filix-mas) is the most commonly available wood fern in the shops. Unlike the lady ferns covered earlier this month, these tend to stay evergreen. Like lady fern, some species may tolerate sun and even drier shady spots, including d. filix-mas. You can divide mature plants in spring or fall or try growing from spores. Mist the spores in sterile soil mid summer. It will be a long process! I’ll have to try it and post the whole process someday!

They also do well in containers. 


Consuming these ferns can result in death.

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

100 Easy-to-Grow Native Plants for Canadian Gardens

The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine

The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal: A Safe and Practical Guide to Making and Using Herbal Remedies

Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs

Reader’s Digest Magic and Medicine of Plants

The Herb Book: The Most Complete Catalog of Herbs Ever Published (Dover Cookbooks)

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