Edible Ferns: No Fern is Useless

Not all ferns are useless. Some are edible, some have medicinal properties, and some are just ornamental, but not totally useless or purposeless.

  • Dr. Alka Kumari of the Institute of Himalyan Bioresources Tehnology is the fern expert of India.
    Photo by Quint Smith
  • Fiddleheads are harvested early in the season before the frond has opened and reached its full height. They have antioxidant activity, are a source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and are high in iron and fiber; though certain varieties of fiddleheads have been shown to be carcinogenic.
    Photo by Quint Smith
  • Women of the hills gather tender shoots in the open meadows to sell at their local market.
    Photo by Quint Smith

We left the small village of Vashist across the Beas River from touristic Manali to hike up to a scenic waterfall. Apple orchards were in full bloom around us. As we were gaining elevation, we entered the Deodar (Cedrus deodara) forest. Up there by the waterfall viewing the valley below, a small crowd of pilgrims were paying respect to Lord Shiva. In all its simplicity a shelter more than a temple, made of stones and covered with a slate roof, was telling us about the intimate link between the source of the waters and the origin of a religion.

We waited, admiring the view and observing the people, until the crowd faded away so we could enjoy some moments of silence. As we were making our way downhill, we met two young hill ladies who were gathering something from the open meadows between the tall cedars.

We approached them, asking what they were doing and if we could take some photos. They opened their basket, producing handfuls of fern shoots. With a few words of English, we understood that they were picking the shoots to sell at the local market where they were considered a delicacy. They seemed very happy with their harvest, and we began a new project, eager to learn more about edible ferns.

Our next stop on our quest for edible ferns would take us to the city of Palampur in the Kangra Valley among tea gardens at the foot at the towering snow covered peaks of the Western Himalayas. This is where the Institute of Himalayan Bioresources Technology is located and where we met Dr. Alka Kumari of the Biodiversity department. Dr Alka is the fern expert in India. After welcoming us, her first words to us were: “No fern is useless,” and she went on enumerating a list of beneficial properties of ferns. This was strange to hear since the vast majority of ferns are toxic, having developed one of the most efficient protective system against pests (including us humans) in the plant world. Our visit started with the Institute’s fern herbarium where 300 species of native ferns are stored and actively maintained and reproduced through their spores, a sophisticated technique that Dr. Alka is one of the few to master.

We then headed to the shaded house where a lot of the ferns are grown for study and for demonstration to the public. Many of them are now used as ornamental, among them the popular species of Adiantum and the majestic Royal Fern (Osmunda) that carries spores on its spikes.

From Dr. Alka we learned that the rhizome of ferns from the Pteris family have the ability to capture arsenic from the soil; that many ferns have antimicrobial properties that can be extracted and used in modern medicine; that the species Ursia alpina, found only in glaciers, carries one of the most powerful cold tolerant genes in nature; and so on about ferns. . . Dr. Alka was sharing her knowledge and her passion with us.

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