Licorice fern gets its name from the sweet licorice flavor stored in its roots.
That’s why native peoples of the Pacific Northwest — among them the Squamish, Sechelt, Comox and Haida — chewed the roots, which are known as rhizomes. The roots also were dried, steamed or scorched, used to sweeten bitter medicine, and given to those suffering from colds and sore throats.
You’ve likely seen licorice fern, which doesn’t grow more than 2½ feet tall, along any number of trails in Whatcom County. The smooth leaves of this evergreen are pointed.
Flip over a leaf, or frond, during spring and you’ll see round, brownish globs of spores that allow the fern to reproduce. When conditions are right, the spores are released and carried by the wind. The spores must land in water in order for each one to grow into a male or female gametophyte, or immature fern. Each of these gametophytes then sends out eggs or sperm. When an egg is fertilized it forms a zygote, which grows into another fern.
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Sources: “Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast,” by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon; Washington Trails Association; American Fern Society