Figure 21.25 A. A Brazilian tree fern. B. The growing tip of a tree fern, showing the protective rust-colored hairs.
the eventual substitution of alternative materials, these magnificent plants might have been totally destroyed. Some tropical hummingbirds use these hairs along with scales of other ferns to line their nests, and at one time, Polynesians used them in a form of embalming for their dead. The trunks of tree ferns have been used in the construction of small houses in the tropics. Parts of one Hawaiian species of small tree fern and the fronds of an Asian fern yield red pigments used for dyeing cloth.
The bracken fern, which is distributed worldwide and is a weed in parts of Europe, has been used and even cultivated for human food for many years, particularly in Japan and New Zealand. It has, however, also long been known to be mildly poisonous to livestock. Research in both Europe and Japan has shown conclusively that bracken fronds fed to experimental animals produce intestinal tumors, and because of this, the consumption of these fronds for food is now actively discouraged.
Indigenous peoples of many areas where ferns occur have eaten the cooked rhizomes and young fronds of various ferns. Native Americans often baked the rhizomes of sword ferns, lady ferns, and others in stone-lined pits, removed the outer layers, and ate the starchy inner material. Similarly, native Hawaiians ate the starchy core of their tree ferns as emergency food. In Asia, the oriental water fern is still sometimes grown for food in rice paddies and used as a raw or cooked vegetable. In Malaysia, a relative of the lady fern is frequently used as a vegetable.
Uses of ferns in folk medicine abound. They have been used in the treatment of diarrhea, dysentery, rickets, diabetes, fevers, eye diseases, burns, wounds, eczema and other skin problems, leprosy, coughs, stings and insect bites, as a poison antidote, for labor pains, constipation, dandruff, and a host of other maladies. The male fern, which is more common in Europe than in North America, contains a drug that is effective in expelling intestinal worms (e.g., tapeworms). Its use for this purpose dates back to ancient times, and it is still occasionally used, although synthetic medicines have now largely replaced it. The licorice fern was used in the past by Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest for the treatment of sore throats and coughs and was also used as a flavoring agent and sugar substitute. Members of a tribe in
California chewed stalks of goldback ferns to quell toothaches and snuffed a liquid made from the fronds of the bird's-foot fern to arrest nosebleeds.
The fronds of bracken and other ferns have been used in the past for thatching houses. Anyone who has placed such fronds in compost piles knows they break down much more slowly than the leaves of other plants. Bracken fronds are still occasionally used as an overnight bedding base by fishermen and hunters. A substance extracted from these fronds has been used in the preparation of chamois leather, and the rhizome is used in northern Europe in the brewing of ale.
The chain fern has large fronds up to 2 meters (6.5 feet) long that have two flexible leathery strands in the petiole and rachis of each frond. Native Americans and others have gathered the fronds for many years to strip these strands for use in basketry and weaving. They do so by gently cracking the long axis with stones to expose the strands, which are then easily removed. The glossy black petioles of the five-finger fern have also been used in intricate basketry patterns by Native Americans. In Southeast Asia, the climbing fern has fronds with a rachis that may grow up to 12 meters (40 feet) long; it is still a favorite material (when available) for the weaving of baskets.
The mosquito fern, which is a floating water fern in the genus Azolla, forms tiny plants little bigger than duckweeds. It is found over wide areas where the climate is relatively mild. It sometimes forms such dense floating mats that it is believed to suffocate mosquito larvae that periodically need to reach the surface for air. This same fern frequently has cyanobacteria living symbiotically in cavities between cells. The cyanobacteria fix nitrogen, and it has been shown experimentally that plants without these organisms do not
Was this article helpful?
Diabetes is a disease that affects the way your body uses food. Normally, your body converts sugars, starches and other foods into a form of sugar called glucose. Your body uses glucose for fuel. The cells receive the glucose through the bloodstream. They then use insulin a hormone made by the pancreas to absorb the glucose, convert it into energy, and either use it or store it for later use. Learn more...