Pteridium aquilinum (bracken, brake or common bracken), also known as eagle fern, and Eastern brakenfern, is a species of fern occurring in temperate and subtropical regions in both hemispheres. The extreme lightness of its spores has led to its global distribution.
Common bracken was first described as Pteris aquilina by the father of taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, in Volume 2 of his Species Plantarum in 1753. The origin of the specific epithet derived from the Latin aquila "eagle", but what it pertains to has been a matter of some debate. It is generally held to be the shape of the mature fronds appearing akin to an eagle's wing. However, medieval scholars, including Erasmus, thought the pattern of the fibres seen in a transverse section of the stipe resembled a double-headed eagle or oak tree. It was given its current binomial name by Friedrich Adalbert Maximilian Kuhn in 1879.
It was traditionally treated as the sole species in the genus Pteridium (brackens); authorities have split and recognised up to 11 species in the genus, however.
Common bracken is a herbaceous perennial plant, deciduous in winter. The large, roughly triangular fronds are produced singly, arising upwards from an underground rhizome, and grow to 1–3 m (3–10 ft) tall; the main stem, or stipe, is up to 1 cm (0.4 in) diameter at the base.
An adaptable plant, bracken readily colonises disturbed areas. It can even be aggressive in countries where it is native, such as England, where it has invaded heather (Calluna vulgaris (L.) Hull) stands on the North Yorkshire moors.
Controversy over the dangers
The plant contains the carcinogenic compound ptaquiloside. High stomach cancer rates are found in Japan and North Wales, where the young stems are used as a vegetable, but it is unknown whether bracken plays any part at all. Consumption of ptaquiloside-contaminated milk is thought to contribute to human gastric cancer in the Andean states of Venezuela. The spores have also been implicated as carcinogens.
However, ptaquiloside is water soluble, and is reduced by soaking bracken in cool water. It also degenerates at room temperature, which explains why the rat studies were done with the toxin stored at −20 °C (−4 °F). At boiling temperature, carcinogen denatures almost completely. Salt and baking soda also helps with volatilizing the chemical.
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