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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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Commentator Sy Montgomery ponders the springtime arrival of fiddlehead ferns, and explains why theyre a proven tonic for body and soul.


CURWOOD: Some call them fiddleheads now, and will call them ferns later. Botanist William Nelson Clute called them "nature's lacework," and others call them "dinner." Commentator Sy Montgomery says ferns are some of spring's most storied offerings.

MONTGOMERY: They emerge coiled like watch springs. Then, unique among buds, the fiddlehead fern spirals into the world. In early spring their shapes are everywhere. The silvery white heads of cinnamon ferns peep up from bogs. The Christmas fern leans back on rocky hillsides. The croquet hoops of nearly-emerged brackens grace open spaces.

When they first appear, we call them fiddleheads because they resemble the scroll of a violin. And they seem to dance to some inner music. Some grow an inch a day, uncoiling suddenly like tiny green serpents. Others come in curling and twisting like ballerinas.

Eons ago ferns grew in luxurious abundance from the equator to the poles. Many towered 50 feet or more, with woody trunks and six-foot leaves. They dominated the dinosaurs' green world. Ferns reproduce in an ancient way, without flowers or seeds, a fact that confounded botanists for centuries. The microscope finally revealed ferns, just like spores, that can cross oceans, and contain within them plans for creatures totally unlike their parents.

But old beliefs held that ferns did flower and set seed. It was just so rare and brief that most people missed it. The flowers were said to be tiny and blue. The seeds were said to glow in the dark. Throughout Medieval Europe, people foraged in the forest to try to catch the magical fern seed, just when it was set to ripen, at the stroke of midnight on midsummer's eve. If you caught the fern seed, it would confer magical powers. Grab a full handful of fern seed and you could become invisible.

Folks still comb the woods for ferns, but these days it's to make kitchen magic. Steamed like asparagus and served with hollandaise sauce, or sauteed in butter and garlic and topped with sesame seeds. There's nothing more delicious than the unsprouted heads of bracken, cinnamon, and ostrich ferns. No wonder ferns evoke poetic imagery. Beautiful, ancient, and mysterious, ferns reawaken us each spring, re-enchant us with magic, and nourish us body and soul.

Music up and under: Turtle Island String Quartet, "Julie-O")

CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery is the author of "The Curious Naturalist," and comes to us from New Hampshire Public Radio.



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