One of the Pacific Northwest ferns to look for on these dreary winter days is the Licorice Fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza). Typically, you find Licorice Fern growing as an epiphyte on Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) and Red Alder (Alnus rubra) but I’ve also seen it growing occasionally on the ground or on moss covered rocks.
Identifying Licorice Fern
The look of the fern is distinctive; individual fronds emerge from thick beds of moss on a deciduous tree’s branches or trunks. The leaves are lance shaped, toothed, pointed and slightly off-set. They diminish in size towards the tip of the stalk. The sori on the underside of the fronds are oval to round and form rows on either side of the mid vein of each blade of the fronds.
Like the name suggests, the Licorice Fern does indeed taste like licorice, or at least the rhizomes do. I’ve sampled sweet rhizomes of this fern on many occasions, but always in moderation, taking just a small part of the rhizome and leaving the fern intact. The rhizomes are scaly and when scraped clean have a translucent green colour.
Many coastal First Nations peoples used Licorice Fern, either chewing the raw rhizomes or drying, steaming or scorching them. According to Pojar and MacKinnon, the rhizomes are “an important medicine for colds and sore throats” and used as a sweetener for bitter medicine.
As with any wild edible, it is important to know exactly what you are harvesting before you eat it. Take only what you need.