Thursday, February 2, 2017

Wild Food Spotlight 6: Licorice Fern

This is the sixth in a series of foraging-related articles I'm writing for our local bulletin.
Re-posted from the Artisan Office Bulletin.
~  ~  ~
The ice is retreating from the shores of our lakes; the sky pelts us with droplets instead of crystalline flakes. And as we creep out into the nascent spring, recovering from the viruses of winter, the skin of the maple trees is coming back to life, as well. The many things that make their home in and on this fertile skin, long withered from the summer's drought and winter's frigid wind, are soaking up the rains and growing, again.

If you look up on almost any bigleaf maple around here, you'll discover haphazard forests of ferns, growing from the moss, there. These are licorice ferns. Find some you can reach, dig your fingers into the soft moss, and feel along the root until you find the end. You can feel where the root is hard and dry, and where the newer growth begins, all smooth and round and fresh. Break off a couple of inches or so of this newer root – it will be enough for a snack or a couple of cups of tea – but be sure not to rip off the moss. This moss is part of our rich ecosystem, and benefits both the tree and the many things that live on it. If you leave most of the fern growing in the moss, you can come back again to harvest later.

Sometimes you can find licorice ferns growing on mossy bluffs or logs, as well. They're still fine to eat, and easy to identify. It's OK to take a fern frond once in a while, too, especially if this is your first time harvesting and you want to examine it!

Now look at the fern. You'll notice it has a stem, leaflets, and spores like other ferns do, but the leaflets are fully attached to the stem. If you compare it to a sword fern frond, you'll see that each sword fern leaflet is attached by a tiny point of a stem. Not so with the licorice fern! Another obvious difference between the two is the taste and smell of the root. It's called licorice fern for a reason, and no other fern in our area has a root that smells like that of licorice fern.

So what to do with this tasty root now? Actually, tasty is a matter of opinion. I've seen more than one person spit it out in disgust. But licorice is not for everyone, and some of us love it. Also, the bitter taste it has when freshly picked pretty much disappears when it's brewed into tea.

Tea is probably the easiest and most effective way to use licorice fern. If you like it you can harvest a lot of it in the early- to mid-spring, chop it up and simply dry it in a basket or sieve on your counter. Keep the dried roots in a jar and use it like you would any other tea. If you want your harvest to go further, crush the dried roots before steeping to help release the oils.

Licorice fern tea has some well-known medicinal properties. It's used to calm a sore throat and cough, to relieve gas and to aid recovery from chest infections.

Most importantly, I feel like licorice fern is a reminder of our integrated ecosystem. All over this island you can find maples, and most of them carry a garden of moss and licorice ferns. This garden is home to a host of other species, and every time we see it we can remember how complex our world is, how important each member of our community is to the well-being of us all, and how we depend upon each other for life.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your comment will appear after it is approved. This can take a while!