AskDefine | Define bracken

Dictionary Definition



1 fern of southeastern Asia; not hardy in cold temperate regions [syn: Pteridium esculentum]
2 large coarse fern often several feet high; essentially weed ferns; cosmopolitan [syn: pasture brake, brake, Pteridium aquilinum]

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. Any of several coarse ferns, of genus Pteridium, that forms dense thickets; often poisonous to livestock
  2. An area of countryside heavily infested with this fern

Extensive Definition

Brackens (Pteridium') are a genus of about ten species of large, coarse ferns, in the family Dennstaedtiaceae. The genus has probably the widest distribution of any fern genus in the world, being found on all continents except Antarctica and in all environments except for hot and cold deserts. Therefore it is considered to have a cosmopolitan distribution. In the past, the genus was commonly treated as having only one species, Pteridium aquilinum, but the recent trend is to subdivide it into several species.
Evolutionarily, bracken may be considered to be one of the most successful ferns. The plant sends up large, triangular fronds from a wide-creeping underground rootstock, and may form dense thickets. This rootstock may travel a metre or more underground between fronds. The fronds may grow up to 2.5 m (8 feet) long or longer with support, but typically are in the range of 0.6-2 m (2-6 feet) high. In cold environments bracken is winter-deciduous, and, as it requires well-drained soil, is generally found growing on the sides of hills.
Brackens are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including Dot Moth, Gold Swift, Map-winged Swift, Orange Swift and Small Angle Shades.
It is a herbaceous perennial plant, deciduous in winter. The fronds are produced singly from an underground rhizome, and grow to 1-3 m tall; the main stem is up to 1 cm diameter at the base.
The plant is carcinogenic to animals such as mice, rats and cattle when ingested. Young stems are used as a vegetable in Japan, leading some reasearchers to suggest a link between consumption and higher stomach cancer rates. The spores have also been implicated as a carcinogen. Danish scientist Lars Holm Rasmussen released a study in 2004 showing that the carcinogenic compound in bracken, ptaquiloside or PTQ, can leach from the plant into the water supply, which may explain an increase in the incidence of gastric and oesophageal cancers in bracken-rich areas. In cattle, bracken poisoning can occur in both an acute and chronic form, acute poisoning being the most common. In pigs and horses bracken poisoning induces vitamin B deficiency. Poisoning usually occurs when there is a shortage of available grasses as in drought or snowfalls.
The word bracken is of Old Norse origin, related to the Swedish word bräken, meaning fern.


Pteridium aquilinum (Bracken or Common Bracken) is the most common species with a cosmopolitan distribution, occurring in temperate and subtropical regions throughout much of the world, including most of Europe, Asia, and North America in the Northern Hemisphere, and Australia, New Zealand and northern South America in the Southern Hemisphere. It is a prolific and abundant plant in the highlands of Great Britain. It causes such a problem of invading pastureland that at one time the British government had an eradication program. Special filters have even been used on some British water supplies to filter out the bracken spores.


Bracken fiddleheads (the immature, tightly curled emerging fronds) have been considered edible by many cultures throughout history, and are still commonly used today as a foodstuff. Bracken fiddleheads are either consumed fresh (and cooked) or preserved by salting, pickling, or sun drying. In Korea, where they are called gosari namul (고사리 나물), they are a typical ingredient in the mixed rice dish called bibimbap.
Both fronds and rhizomes have been used to brew beer, and the rhizome starch has been used as a substitute for arrowroot. Bread can be made out of dried and powered rhizomes alone or with other flour. American Indians cooked the rhizomes, then peeled and ate them or pounded the starchy fiber into flour. In Japan, starch from the rhizomes used to be used to make confections.
The Māori of New Zealand used the rhizomes of P. esculentum (aruhe) as a staple food, especially for exploring or hunting groups away from permanent settlements; much of the widespread distribution of this species in present-day New Zealand is in fact a consequence of prehistoric deforestation and subsequent tending of aruhe stands on rich soils (which produced the best rhizomes). The rhizomes were air-dried so that they could be stored and became lighter; for consumption, they were briefly heated and then softened with a patu aruhe (rhizome pounder); the starch could then be sucked from the fibers by each diner, or collected if it were to be prepared for a larger feast. Patu aruhe were significant items and several distinct styles were developed (McGlone et al. 2005).
Bracken has also been used as a form of herbal remedy. Powdered rhizome has been considered particularly effective against parasitic worms. American Indians ate raw rhizomes as a remedy for bronchitis.
In East Asia, Pteridium aquilinum (fernbrake or bracken fiddleheads) is eaten as a vegetable, called warabi (蕨 / わらび) in Japan, gosari (고사리) in Korea, and juécài (蕨菜) in China and Taiwan. In Korea, a typical banchan (small side dish) is gosari-namul (고사리나물) that consists of prepared fernbrake that has been sauteed. It is a component of the popular dish bibimbap.
Bracken has been shown to be carcinogenic in some animals and is thought to be an important cause of the high incidence of stomach cancer in Japan. It is currently under investigation as a possible source of new insecticides.
Uncooked bracken contains the enzyme thiaminase, which breaks down thiamine. Eating excessive quantities of bracken can cause beriberi, especially in creatures with simple-stomachs. Ruminants are less vulnerable because they synthesize thiamine.
bracken in German: Adlerfarne
bracken in Spanish: Pteridium
bracken in French: Pteridium
bracken in Polish: Orlica (roślina)
bracken in Finnish: Sananjalka
bracken in Italian: Pteridium aquilinum
bracken in Dutch: Adelaarsvaren
bracken in Swedish: Örnbräken

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

algae, autophyte, bean, brown algae, climber, conferva, confervoid, creeper, diatom, fern, fruits and vegetables, fucus, fungus, grapevine, green algae, gulfweed, herb, heterophyte, ivy, kelp, legume, lentil, liana, lichen, liverwort, mold, moss, mushroom, parasite, parasitic plant, pea, perthophyte, phytoplankton, planktonic algae, plant families, puffball, pulse, red algae, rockweed, rust, saprophyte, sargasso, sargassum, sea lentil, sea moss, sea wrack, seaweed, smut, succulent, toadstool, vetch, vine, wort, wrack
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