Why Buy a Bayabang?

To which my witty retort would be - why not? Bayabang is a fern, Nephrolepis cordifolia, which has been on my wish list for decades. Also known as the tuber ladder fern, or sword fern, it is a relative rarity - a fern with edible tubers. The plant itself isn't rare, being found in a broad swathe of the tropics and subtropics from Hawaii and the Philippines to India and Nepal. It's a close relative of that well-known houseplant, the Boston fern (N. exaltata); where the climate is suitable, like Florida, it can become established outside its native haunts and be quite invasive. It's described by the RHS as half-hardy, so it might pull through a mild winter here in Cornwall. I like the name bayabang, which originates in the Philippines; other names include kupukupu (Hawaii) and pani amla (Nepal).

My recent interest in bayabang was rekindled when the paucity of quality television viewing led me to flick through one of my old notebooks from sometime in the last decade of the 20th century. My gaze fell on the page where I had scrawled N. cordifolia. In those distant pre-internet days, I had been unable to locate a plant, but I was pretty sure things would have improved in the brave new world of electronic communication. The same cannot be said of my handwriting, which, I'm sorry to report, has remained unchanged.

I hurried away to the interwebs to secure the biggest bayabang for my bucks. My first attempt failed, as eBay's hive mind seemed to think that "Sword Fern" showed I was a maladjusted loner with a penchant for plunging offensive weapons into innocent people; the transaction was denied. I suppose someone could be whipped to death with a frond, or crushed by a falling tree fern, but I doubt that Nephrolepis really constitutes much of a threat to the public. In fact, bayabang has a long history of use as a folk medicine and has many beneficial properties.

The value of its tubers has been investigated by researchers at Kathmandu University. They concluded that they are a rich source of carbohydrates and calcium. Seeing as they are a favourite snack of children, this is obviously a good thing. With bayabang, the portions are conveniently child-sized, with the tubers resembling small, scaly grapes. Perhaps tuberlets might be more appropriate a name. They're designed to help the fern survive periodic desiccation - N. cordifolia being frequently epiphytic or even epilithic.

I confess that I am a little chary of fern consumption. Bracken has a long tradition of being eaten, both its young unfurled fronds as well as the sinuous, starchy rhizomes.  I've never managed to extract the rhizomes in anything like sufficient quantities to justify cooking and eating them. The ground has always been far too rocky and unforgiving. As for the fronds - the dread word ptaquiloside rings in my ears, not just for its impenetrable pronunciation, but its fearsome reputation as a carcinogen; its presence has apparently been linked to higher incidences of stomach and oesophageal cancers in bracken-eating populations.

My bayabang plants duly arrived. On opening the box, I was assailed by that strange ferny odour that reminded me of the summer afternoons of childhood, whooping and charging through towering bracken stands. The sun did seem to shine a lot back then and ticks and Lyme disease were seemingly unknown. Happy days.

I potted up the offsets and I'm hoping that the little croziers unwind and ferny foliage fills the house before too long. Come the summer (soon, please!) I will try them outside.

As I manipulated the root sytems into their pots, I couldn't resist plucking one of those shaggy little grapes and trying it. It was crunchy, sweet and tasted distinctly brackeny. If not exactly epicurean in quality, I can see how kids might rehydrate themselves by devouring them as they tear through the forest. Trust me, I've tasted a lot worse in the world of edible roots, I really have.   

And as everyone knows (I hope!) ferns reproduce sexually by means of spores, which they produce in vast quantities. It wouldn't be too difficult to select for a fern with outsize tubers - there are already several horticultural varieties of N. cordifolia available commercially, suggesting that new forms appear quite readily. With such plants, the Radix project can spread indoors, onto the windowsills, into the bathroom and beyond. When the plants get too big, I'll knock them out of their pots and divide them, not forgetting to eat the tubers as I go.

Terms such as "edimental" are now all the rage - so I have no compunction in coining my own: pteridedible - a fern fit for food. I shall look forward to growing and harvesting my bayabang and exploring other edible ferns, of which there are a surprising number. And maybe I'll head out to the woods one day, crowbar in hand and have a go at harvesting some bracken rhizomes.

In a coincidence reminiscent of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace's independent work on evolutionary theory, as I was researching this post, I came across this article on N. cordifolia on the Eat The Weeds website. It predates mine by several years, so it's far too late for a joint publication like Messrs. Darwin and Wallace's 1858 classic. I suggest you head over there and read what Green Deane has to say. You even get a video.


Anonymous said…
Thank you for sharing the information. Do you know where can we buy it in Canada?