Be Careful with Fiddlenecks

October 1, 2001

In his article on “The Changing Nature of Joaquin Miller Park” author Rex Burress wrote that the fiddle-heads of young bracken ferns are edible “either cooked or raw.” However, before you head out to pick ferns for your soup pot, you might want to heed the information brought to our attention by one very informed reader.

In January 1990, the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment added bracken fern to its list of known carcinogens. This list was developed and made available to the public as a consequence of Proposition 65, The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, which requires the governor to publish a list of known carcinogens (

In addition, the website of the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research in Cancer (IARC) states that “bracken fern was tested for carcinogenicity by oral administration to mice, rats, guinea pigs, and toads. In all species except cows, bracken fern induced malignant or benign and malignant intestinal tumors” (

This news may come as a bit of a shock to those who look forward to the spring fiddlehead season as a time to brighten up soups, salads, and stir fries. Through the 1980s, many naturalists regarded the young fronds of bracken fern as an edible delicacy. And indeed, the fiddlehead of the ostrich fern is safe to eat (though it does not grow wild in California).

Don’t let this cautionary note squelch your natural urge to sample the “fruits of the wild.” It is still a good way to interact with, and get to know, the natural environment around us. But exercise care and be well-informed when harvesting things to eat from nature. Be sure to check out both the toxicity of the poten-tial food and the health of its local population; after all, you wouldn’t want to contribute to the eradication of yet another native species from the Bay Area environment. There are many plants and fungi out there that are edible, safe, and abundant; please just take care.

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