I remember the first time I read the word “licorice fern.” It was stamped clearly into the stone wall of one of the staircases at Multnomah Falls.
I had recently emigrated to the west side of Oregon from the high desert of the east side of the state, for school, so I was taking every opportunity of exploring the lush green land of my fantasies. The licorice fern was to become a major staple in my life, though I hardly knew it at the time. On this particular trip to Multnomah Falls I was accompanied by my dad, who was also glad for a change of scenery and came to visit me at school fairly often.
As a biologist, he’d spent my whole life taking my sister and me out to some woods or river, pointing out plants and animals along the way, and perusing them himself, mostly silent but for the occasional observation. So we spent our time now, cameras in hand, slowly making our way to the falls. Dad was turning over rocks and logs in pursuit of salamanders, and I was pocketing pebbles and taking my usual photos of small, pleasing plants.
The wall of the stairway was to me something out of a dream, the living veil of a faerie’s glen, a pathway toward Rivendell.
Water glistened in the crevices between the stones, trickling down the grey brick. It clung to each strand of sphagnum moss, beaded the tops of the sporophytes they stretched out. Crystalline pinpricks dotted the carpets of the denser mosses by the thousands.
And swaying among all the other shades of green and brown, bowing their heads under their own crowns of clear beads of rain, the ferns gave a sense of soft, constant movement. Some fronds reached down from their lofty perches, others smaller in stature had placed themselves in the nooks and crannies between the bricks. As the stair wound its way up, there were markers to identify some of the plants. One appeared to me rather like the Secret Garden was revealed to Mary Lennox, herself: a spray of ferns drifted in front of a worded stone, as if to introduce itself.
“I am a Licorice Fern,” it said.
Polypodium glycyrrhiza, as it is scientifically classified, earned its colloquial name, unsurprisingly, from its flavor. Many Indian peoples were known to chew the root (or the rhizome) for the strong licorice taste. Even now you can find dozens of recipes for licorice fern tea, liqueur, and sauces online. Some claim it has medicinal uses, such as for colds, sore throats, and coughs.
The Pacific Northwest fairly trips over itself to pay homage to the abundant epiphyte. There are “Licorice Fern” trails and parks and gated communities ranging all over, from Idaho to Alaska. And no wonder: any time you drive by a big mossy tree, you’re likely passing hundreds of licorice ferns, clinging to the tops of the branches, or in the “armpits,” if you like.
I passed my hand over the lacy green plants up the stairway at Multnomah, spattering drops of rain, gathering thin trails of mud along my palm. I knew I had made a lifelong companion. For those of us who were probably some species of moss in a former life, these ethereal fronds are kindred spirits, beckoning us into the forests of the Pacific Northwest.