As the winter season approaches, it may seem like the time for fresh plant life is over.
While we may not be enjoying the same leafy profusion brought by those April showers (though truthfully, here on the West Coast they’re not always so very distinct from the January showers, the July showers, or the October showers), the winter months bring their share of new growth.
One of my favourite harbingers of the winter season is the sudden emergence of Licorice Fern fronds, peeking out from moss-covered rock faces and the trunks of maple trees. This surprising burst of spring green is a welcome surprise in the often-grey expanse of November, an unexpected time of year for the emergence of new foliage.
Now, a little commentary on this plant’s nomenclature to start with. Licorice Fern’s scientific name includes the Latin polypodium, which means ‘many feet’ – to my mind, a perfect name for the rhizomatic root system of this fern. Its fronds sprout up from long fibre-y networks of roots, so you’ll find this fern growing in patches, but not in the kind of clump formation you’d find Sword Ferns clustered in.
The other part of its scientific name is glycyrrhiza, meaning ‘sweet root’ – again, the perfect name for this special fern, whose roots have a strong anise flavour. And thus we return full circle to its common name of Licorice Fern. You’ve got to appreciate such an aptly-named plant!
For a concise overview of this fern and its characteristics, check out the one-page profile developed by the Native Plant Society of British Columbia. Also, for those wishing to become more well-versed in our local native plant species, the NPSBC has also collected a solid list of helpful field guides for the region.
In traditional medicine, the roots of this plant have served as a remedy for colds and sore throats, or simply as a sweetener or appetite stimulant. The rhizomes were either chewed raw (but not consumed, as they are notably tough and stringy) or steeped as an herbal infusion. For more on indigenous uses, the UBC Faculty of Land and Food Systems has provided a general outline and resource list as part of their Indigenous Research Partnerships program.
I’ve occasionally tried a taste of the root as I’ve been hiking and discovered a particularly abundant patch that wouldn’t be adversely affected by nicking a little root piece – you definitely need a pocket knife to slice off a small segment, otherwise you’ll end up uprooting a whole rhizome network as well as disturbing the moss bed that these ferns typically spring from. The taste is sweet and strongly licorice – chewing a small piece before drinking water makes for a very pleasant-tasting refreshment.
One final fascinating feature of these winter ferns is their epiphytic potential – while they often grow rooted in the ground, they can just as easily subsist by attaching themselves to the highly textured bark of trees like Big-leaf Maples, obtaining their needed moisture from the air, rainfall, and liquid collecting on the tree. Their nutrients come from sunlight and from the bark itself – no need for soil.
Wondering where to find this leafy gem? The folks at E-Flora BC have created a super-detailed interactive distribution map for Licorice Fern – very cool!
So when you’re out wandering the woods this winter season, keep a sharp eye out along rocky outcroppings and on towering maple trees, and you’ll very likely find this licorice-flavoured fern in abundance.
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