Fiddlehead Ferns: How Dangerous is the First Taste of Spring?

The French botanist named 6,700 species in a manic quest for fame. But did his taste for wild foods do him in?

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Constantine Rafinesque, a young French botanist, came to Philadelphia in 1802 and soon set off for Appalachia, walking at least 8,000 miles on foot in search of previously unclassified flora. He would name 6,700 species in a manic quest for fame, an exuberance that would ultimately undermine his reputation among his peers (Harvard’s Ava Gray would mock him for finding twelve species of lightning). As John Jeremiah Sullivan writes in “La-Hwi-Ne-Ski: Career of an Eccentric Naturalist,” an essay collected in Pulphead, the French polymath also advanced ideas far ahead of their time. He proposed a deviation of species, which preceded Darwin’s theory of evolution. And, as Sullivan writes, “Rafinesque was the first person ever to deny in print the very existence of race as a meaningful social construct.”

He also published books on North America fauna, ancient Mayan hieroglyphics, and the Walam Olum, an apparent hoax about origin of North American Indians. Rafineseque established himself as an expert in medicinal plants. His Medical Flora; Manual of the Medical Botany of the United States was sort of Merck Manual of its day. In 1829, the self-taught naturalist and self-proclaimed lung expert wrote The Pulmist; or, Introduction to the Art to Cure and to Prevent the Consumption and began selling a sweet-smelling herbal concoction as a cure for tuberculosis.

Rafineque’s concoction leaves us with something of a cautionary tale about a fleeting taste of early spring: the furled pinnae of the wild, fiddlehead fern*, one of the first wild edible plants to emerge.

Rafinesque did not patent his Pulmel concoction to avoid revealing its contents, so the exact recipe is a mystery. Elsewhere he named the plants in the auxiliaries—“Syrup of Lycopus, Pectoral Syrups of Lanthois, medicated oak bark”—and Charles Ambrose, a scholar at the University of Kentucky, writes in the Journal of Medical Biography that Rafinesque may have added two native ferns:

Both ferns were abundant in Pennsylvania where Rafinesque likely collected plants used in Pulmel. He was especially familiar with Adiantum (maidenhair fern) because of its common usage in France in a beverage and a medicinal syrup. He extolled its virtues as “a popular pectoral remedy throughout Europe, although little known in America” and wrote, “My own experience has tested the value of this plant and its syrup.”

But the long-term self-medication may have taken its toll. Gastric cancers have since been linked to eating bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) or drinking milk from bracken-fed cows. Ferns are one of the few, if only, edible plants known to cause cancer in animals. While Rafinesque’s dose, despite unknowns about the recipe and the carcinogenicity, appears to have taken its toll: He died of stomach cancer at the age of 57. Until researchers assess the dregs of a bottle, yet to be unearthed, we’re left to wonder: Did the wild ferns do him in?

Portrait courtesy of the New York Public Library. Drawing of the American Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum), from Medical Flora, vol. 1. Thumbnail image of ostrich fern courtesy (cc) of Flickr user LexnGer.

* To botanists, fiddlehead is the descriptive terminology for the rolled-up frond, also known as crozier. Confusingly, it’s also the common name cooks use to refer to many different edible wild fern species. The species discussed here—Adiantum pedatum and Polypodium vulgare—do not appear to be eaten as commonly as the furled tips of the bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) or ostrich (Matteuccia struthiopteris) ferns. Furthermore, it’s unclear whether repeated boiling and cooking reduces the level of carcinogens.

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