Earlier in ‘spring,’ the appearance of a large number of bracken fern was welcome: they didn’t cost anything, take any work, and they added a fresh, lush, green-ness to the clearing. The young fiddleheads were almost cute as they unfurled and the daily emergence of new volunteers lent a bit of excitement and wonder to each morning. Having no prior life experience with the plant, I was fairly content to co-exist with it.
As the season progressed, the now fully-open fronds seemed to offer some light shade to their neighbors and a had cheerful chartreuse cast that paralleled the seasonal quality of light. I could not help but note, however, that as the deer browsed about the property they would reach high for tender new leaves of vine maple and selectively nose about at groundcover level–but not eat the young ferns that now could be had without even bending over. In other words, the deer were working harder to not eat the bracken. The ferns were also beginning to obscure most of the landscape around them. I thinned a few out to offer sunlight to some of the plants or to afford a view of other parts of the glen. Then as I returned from vacation, the bracken fern was suddenly, and rather startlingly, as tall as I am.
According to Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, bracken fern ‘has been implicated in livestock poisoning and stomach cancer.’ Research from other sources indicates that bracken, which has an affinity for relatively sterile soils, is toxic not only in the fronds but also in the rhizome. This toxicity can potentially be transmitted to the surrounding soil if the rhizome is allowed to get too large and to spread. Digging the ferns up, rhizome and all, isn’t an option, as the rhizome can grow and spread up to SIX FEET UNDERGROUND. I don’t mind spraying a persistent weed here and there, but there is just too much bracken, and a wholesale spraying (or weed whacking) would only put plants I like and want at risk.
Bracken fern is prevalent on every continent except Antarctica in all temperate environments. I can only think of a couple things that show this kind of resilience, persistence, and resourcefulness. It is now me vs. bracken fern as I have decided to pull the fronds to exhaust the rhizomes, a process that will likely take several years and may likely exhaust me as well. My first extensive frond pull yielded a pile of bracken seven feet high, and I plan to pull the ferns as they unfurl until either I or the roots run out of energy. Perhaps risk from bracken fern is overstated–but I wouldn’t eat poison blowfish at the sushi joint, either.