One of Scotland’s ‘useful plants’ which gets a mixed press. Although regarded inferior
to heather, it was much used for thatching and bedding for people and animals. The
fronds were believed to have insect-repellent properties and this is borne out by
modern scientific research. The ash from burned bracken was used in glass and soap
making; the Isle of Mull had a considerable income from exporting the product. Many
birds including skylarks; willow warbler; yellowhammer; ring ouzel; woodcock and
twite use bracken to nest under.
However, the plant is carcinogenic to horses and cattle when ingested; acute and
chronic poisoning can occur. Also the invasive nature of the plant allows it to destroy
heather and pasture.
In Japan, Korea and China the young fronds are eaten, but this is thought to lead
to an increased chance of stomach cancer. Danish research in 2004 even suggests a
toxin, ptaquiloside, can leach into the water supply in bracken-rich areas, and lead
to an increased incidence of cancer in those areas.