Plant Guide > Ferns > Bracken Fern

Bracken Fern



Eupteris aquilina

The Bracken Fern is a well-known and very common species of fern, not at all difficult to recognise, by its large and strong growth, and the continuous lines of marginal sori on the compound bipinnate fronds. They are sometimes ten or twelve feet in height, and their texture is crisp and brittle. Each frond appears singly, and the growth of the plant is the reverse of being tufted. The root attains a very large size in a favourable soil, and Mr. Newman says he has found them buried as low as fifteen feet. The plant spreads very rapidly, and in some places acres of land are covered by it. The fronds turn brown at the first approach of frost, and decay away in the winter. The stem being hard and tough, and deeply buried in the earth, is not easily rooted up ; but when cut across, presents on the two divided surfaces the figure of an Oak Tree, or as some fancy, a Spread Eagle; hence its specific name.

Although one of our commonest ferns, this plant is not luxuriant on chalky soil, but in sandy and stony districts it is most abundant, and by its handsome feathery fronds and rich green appearance, adds greatly to the scenic effect of many a rural district. It forms a hiding-place for game ; and the fern-coverts are well known to sportsmen, and are celebrated in song:

"The wild buck bells from ferny brake."

The economical uses of this fern are many. As a manure it is largely consumed in some places; and in the western parts of Scotland is a profitable source of alkaline ashes for the glass and soap-maker. As a litter for horses, it is in great request in some parts of Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. The stalks are used as materials for thatching, and this seems to be a very ancient practice, - as early as the year 1349. In the Forest of Dean, pigs are fed on the fronds. A botanical friend of our own, rather given to speculative devices, sent us one day a dish, consisting of the lower parts of the stem of this fern, cut off just below the ground, so as to retain the white delicate appearance of underground growth, assuring us it was quite equal to asparagus. It was accordingly cooked, and served as seakale or asparagus, and pronounced to be quite palatable, though not equal to either of the other named vegetables. It might, however, well form a substitute for them, and, being so easily and inexpensively obtained, it is surprising that it does not oftener find its way to the poor man's table. The astringency of this fern is great, so much so that it has been recommended for dressing and preparing chamois leather. As a material for packing fruit, etc. it is invaluable. This plant was undoubtedly the original fearn of our Saxon ancestors, from the abundance of which the names of so many towns and villages have originated; such as Farnborough, Farnham, etc. It is to this fern we may attribute chiefly the many superstitions, legends, and proverbs connected with ferns generally. It seems to have been associated with our popular fancies for many a long day. Shakespeare speaks of the " fern-seed by which we walk invisible." Ben Jonson says:

"I had no medicine, sir, to walk invisible,-
No fern-seed in my pocket."

There was a homely proverb, once in common use, which we may quote:

"When the fern is as high as a spoon,
You may sleep an hour at noon;
When the fern is as high as a ladle,
You may sleep as long as you're able;
When the fern begins to look red,
Then milk is good with brown bread."

The beauty and pleasant associations of this luxuriant fern are celebrated in song by a modern poetess, who says, in her appropriate lines, -

"Have ye to learn how the Eagle Fern
Does in its heart enshrine
An oak-tree, like that which the hunter Herne
Haunted in days `long sync' ?
An oak-tree small is repeated, all
Complete in branch and root,
Like the tree whereunto King Charles did flee,
When press'd by hot pursuit."

From its large and rapid growth, the depth of soil required for its roots, and the amount of space necessary, this fern is scarcely adapted for an ordinary fern collection, although there are positions where it is very ornamental; such as in shrubberies, in parks, and paddocks. It is not difficult to transplant, if only care be taken that the large long rhizome be not injured in removal, which had better take place in the winter. Any soil is indifferent to its success, so that it be not chalky.