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Country Gentleman: From childhood hiding spot to dinner plate, ferns a sign of summer

An orchid belonging to the genus Cremastra is seen in bloom. (Photo courtesy of the C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust)

Bracken is a large, coarse fern found on all continents except Antarctica. It grows in our woods here in Nagano, with a mature plant reaching 50 centimeters or so. Bracken has large, triangular fronds growing from a single stem. It spreads through its root system and also from spores. As a boy in Britain, I loved to play in the bracken, which could grow so high that a boy could easily hide in it, and so could rabbits, birds and sometimes adders!

We used to make summer dens in the bracken, by sticking straight and pliable sticks in a circle in the ground, then bending them over to tie together at the top. We'd tie on a simple frame, and then lash on a thick cover of green and fragrant bracken ferns.

In Britain and other parts of Europe, bracken was commonly used for stable bedding, removed regularly together with the animal droppings to be piled and matured for fertilizer. Bracken was also harvested for use in tanning and soap making.

I didn't eat bracken tips until I came to Japan, but now they are a regular dish for us in late spring and early summer. We never get the kind of tall, dense bracken thickets I knew as a boy; here that niche seems to be occupied by "sassa" bamboo grass. I now think of bracken tips, "warabi" in Japanese, as a pleasant dish that I prepare myself.

In Britain, over the last few decades, bracken has come to be regarded as an invasive and pernicious pest. Many ways are tried to control it, from pesticides to heavy rollers called "bracken bashers" that cut and crush the stems and tear up the roots. In Britain, bracken can spread quickly and take over other precious moorland habitat such as moor berry, bilberry, grasses and heather. British country folk now consider bracken to be toxic to cattle, horses, sheep, pigs and dogs, and there are also claims that eating bracken is a cause of stomach cancer in humans. I myself believe that the poison in bracken is water soluble and also destroyed by heat and alkaline conditions, such as wood ash or baking powder.

Part of the problem in Britain seems to be that livestock no longer trample young bracken, because cattle, sheep and horses are no longer allowed to roam the moorland as they did when I was a boy. This in itself is out of fear of spreading sicknesses such as foot and mouth disease, epidemics of which have devastated British livestock over the last 30 years or so.

My feeling is that we should be the caretakers of our country environment, trying to effect wise use and balance, through hard work and consideration for other life, without the use of dubious pesticides.

I loved the fresh bracken as a boy, although we never ate it. Bracken gave us kids cover, as it did also for other wild creatures. I loved to spot rabbits by the tips of their ears, just sticking above the young bracken. Bracken in Britain is also food for certain species of butterfly.

In parts of our woodland, the trees had all been cleared after the end of World War II in order to create vegetable fields. These fields were later abandoned and soon choked with dense growths of bamboo grass. This subdued the growth of young trees and other plants. We solved this by cutting down the dense growth, and then marking each spot where we planted a sapling with a stick, stuck in the ground beside the sapling, and marked with red tape.

The next time we cut back the bamboo grass, these markers told us where to be careful to avoid cutting saplings. By the time we had cut back the bamboo grass three times, the young trees had poked their heads out and begun to win the battle for sunlight. In a few years, the trees had won completely, although we did not even try to totally destroy the bamboo grass, which is, after all, a native species.

("Country Gentleman" is a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol)

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