Saturday, February 25, 2012

Bracken fern

(Click on the image to view larger)

I have a fondness for ferns; they grow in secret spaces, in unexpected places.  This is a partial piece of a bracken fern that I sketched with my Pitt pen (S size) in a sketchbook I received for Christmas.  I don’t know what kind of paper it is – but it’s silky smooth and takes pen marks well.  I added some light watercolor washes to show the varied browns of the dried frond. 

Ferns are fascinating in themselves, especially their reproductive cycle.  They are also a visual treat: lacy, intricate, unfurling in a spiral pattern.  Although not a true fractal because they are finite, the repetitive pattern of ferns is a good example of natural fractal patterns.  

Fractals are patterns where the parts are the same or similar to the whole.  For instance, in my drawing you can see that the pattern of the tip repeats in the branching leaflets.  The whole frond resembles the leaflets, as you can see in this photo from the University of Florida. Needless to say, this makes drawing a fern a bit mind-bending. 

Bracken ferns like to grow in open spaces; I sometimes see them on roadside and woodland edges.  Bracken fern is common, occurring throughout the world.  It has been used by humans for multiple purposes, including food.  The fiddleheads (unfurled baby fronds) are eaten regularly in Asian cultures. 

Although bracken fern contains a carcinogen that often causes cancers in livestock, cooking and/or soaking the fiddleheads in water reduces the risk to humans.  A caveat:  the carcinogen, ptalquiloside, varies with fern populations.  Always research thoroughly and know exactly what you are eating and how to safely prepare it; older ferns should be avoided entirely. 

Other past human uses for bracken fern include: fibers for basket weaving, starch from the rhizomes for flour, medicinal teas and decoctions for ailments such as chest complaints, headaches, and burns.  It was also used for thatch and kindling, livestock bedding, and for dyeing cloth and fibers. Despite a tendency to become invasive, bracken fern is not only a beautiful plant, but a useful one as well.