Licorice fern, Polypodium glycyrrhiza, has edible rhizomes that taste like you would expect: of anise! To be fair, there’s also some sour bitterness to the flavor, which means it is more palatable to chew them like forest gum and then spit them out when the flavor gets icky. Unlike most herbal medicines, which are taken internally via a tea of some kind, licorice fern is traditionally used the same way, by chewing the roots and swallowing the juice, then discarding them, according to ethnobotanist Nancy Turner, who has written that it’s got a history of traditional indigenous use as a sore-throat medicine.
Licorice fern is very easy to identify. It grows on deciduous tree trunks and fallen logs — typically maples — as well as in rock walls, rather than on the forest floor like other species. The fronds are similar in shape to sword fern but are much smaller, not much longer than a foot usually. They are connected by a network of horizontal roots, also known as rhizomes, which embed themselves snugly underneath a shallow carpet of dirt and moss. They hold on tight, so if you simply yank a frond, you’re more likely to snap it off than get the rhizomes you’re after. It works better to get your fingers underneath the moss and grab hold of the roots you want, then pull from there.
Rather than flowering and making seeds like most plants do, the ferns use a prehistoric reproduction strategy shared by mushrooms: They release spores. The underside of the leaves usually has visible orange dots on them called sori, which store them.
Licorice fern grows in forests throughout the western coast of North America from Arizona through Canada and Alaska.
Yes, if you are around the Portland, Oregon, area, you can hire me to help you identify the wild plants on your property, or for a private plant identification hike through a wilderness area! I offer these for individuals and groups of all ages.
And, if you are the type who would like to immerse yourself in plants, check out my herbal apprenticeship program. I am currently accepting applications for 2016. The 2015 class is loving it so much that, at their request, we are extending the program through October this year (it was originally going to end in August) and there are requests to let them repeat the course next year!