PMJS archive (3): Warabi
  • poisonous effects of warabi 蕨 or bracken ferns
  • The Tale of Genji chapter 48, "Sawarabi" 早蕨 ["Bracken Shoots"]
  • poisoning in general
  • poisoning and the Way of Tea, chanoyu 茶の湯
  • Question raised by: Royall Tyler
    Discussants: Michael Watson, Christina Laffin, Reinhard Zoellner, Hank Glassman, David Pollack, David Olson, Gary Cadwallader, Tom Harper

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    From: Royall Tyler

    At the beginning of "Sawarabi" the Ajari sends Nakanokimi a basket of sawarabi, bracken shoots. I have a lot of bracken on my place, and we spray as much of it as we can. Bracken is poisonous. In all phases of its life, from shoot to dead leaf, it contains an extremely toxic compound, though in low concentration. We pray whenever we see our animals nibble at it, as they occasionally do. Cattle that eat a lot of bracken may die of it, though on beef cattle farms this is seldom a problem because the stock are not around long enough. It is a cumulative poison.

    So you can imagine my feelings when the Ajari sends Nakanokimi that basket. Think of warabi mochi, sansai, and so on.

    Does anyone know anything about this?

    Royall Tyler

    From: Michael Watson

    The bracken/warabi question is intriguing.

    Kenkyusha's E/J Dictionary explains "bracken" as "(1) (shokubutsu) WARABI (Pteridium aquilinum)

    The Oxford English dictionary defines "bracken" as "(1) A fern; spec. (in modern writers) Pteris aquilina, the 'Brake'. (In the north all large ferns are brackens; Pteris aquilina is merely the most conspicuous and the best known, from the masses in which it grows.)" Quotations from c1325 but no mention of EATING bracken.

    Definition 2 is the use in combinations like bracken-bush, perhaps what Kenkyusha is explaining by (2) shida no yabu

    On reading Royall's question, I wondered whether bracken as a translation for warabi was just one of those inexact pairings that have become traditional. However the Latin terms, though slightly different in form, would seem to be the same.

    The standard reference for Japanese flora information is by Makino, apparently, but I don't have it handy.

    Couldn't it be that bracken in Australia could be the name given to a different fern? What do Australian guides to plants say?

    Michael Watson

    From: Christina Laffin

    I'm not sure about Australian bracken, but I know that it is in Canada cow owners are concerned about their animals not eating too much braken and have heard of animals dying as a result of eating the full grown ferns.

    On the other hand, everyone living in Japan has probably eaten fiddlehead ferns and after tasting the ones in our backyard in British Columbia, I can vouch that they are either the same thing or very similar.

    From: Michael Watson

    A little web search in English and Japanese has uncovered a few more facts about warabi and bracken, and seems to confirm that generally warabi=bracken and is edible to humans (depending on type) but poisonous to cattle.

    Read on, however, to hear the whole story. I've given rough translations of the Japanese text quoted here--which may not survive the trip across the Internet.

    (1) Japanese cows suffer the same problems as Australian and Canadian cattle--no Nihonjinron discourse on this list. Here's a ronbun to prove it, reporting on clinical/blood diagnosis of warabi poisoning in grazing cattle (the oishii "black hair" type):

    推移 」(中国農試研報, 16: 93-106, 1996)

    "Houbokuji ni warabi chuudoku no hassei wo mitometa kuroge-washu ni okeru rinshoo oyobi ketsueki shoken no suii" (Chuugoku nou shikenhou 16, 1996)

    I haven't actually read this report of the Chuugoku agricultural testing newsletter--thoroughly unscholarly of me--but found it on a page entitled "Be careful of warabi poisoning" To translate:
    "If cattle eat too much warabi then they are poisoned. In the worst case they die. So in order to reduce even by a little bit the warabi from the grazing land, we picked some and ate it [ourselves]."--the picture showing the scientists sorting out the warabi for their own consumption. How very Japanese. ["Totally normal behaviour for Japanese" someone here says]


    Other pages mention this problem of grazing cattle being poisoned (houboku kachiku no warabi chuudoku):
    (title of talk at the "kagaku danwa kai" of Iwate Prefecture, a dairy-producing area where it is a problem, no doubt)

    (2) Human consumption of warabi/bracken

    An Australian site on "Promoting Edible Plants" notes that "Many of the vegetable foods eaten by the Aborigines are more palatable when young - for example, ferns, bracken roots, grasses, young leaves and shoots of trees." With a nice picture of a ferns in an Australian forest.

    How the native Australians eat bracken I do not know, but in Japan the preparation of warabi for human consumption involves soaking overnight and boiling to remove the bitterness (aku wo toru), often with the addition of soda (juusou). It is said to be unpalatable unless this is done.

    For Japanese instructions about warabi and wild plants generally see this page or this

    A detailed U.S. recipe for "FERN TIPS VINAIGRETTE"
    This page notes the variety of ferns in North America:

    "Fiddleheads, the coiled tips of young fern fronds, are a springtime delicacy especially prized by New Englanders and wild foods enthusiasts. Their season lasts only two weeks or so in May. Three kinds of the curled crosiers are gathered: those of the ostrich fern, the cinnamon fern, and the common bracken fern." From The Wild Flavor by Marilyn Kluger. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1984. Pp. 245-248. ISBN 0-87477-338-5.

    (3) BUT not all ferns are edible:

    The distinction between ferns is further explained on a Canadian government page (Nova Scotia Garden Guide):

    In Canada and the U.S. there are more than seven hundred plant species known to cause illness or death. Fiddleheads of the ostrich fern, for example, are a spring time delicacy that abound here in Nova Scotia, and they're fine to eat, but we also have bracken fern, and its fiddleheads contain several toxins, so you must know what to look for."

    Aha. The plot thickens.

    From Maine there is a close-up picture of "the fiddleheads of the bracken ferns, not the edible Ostrich fern": And a Japanese close-up of fiddle-heads.

    If you are not tired of WARABI yet, there is a whole site devoted to it: where to find it, how to prepare it, how to serve it...

    And if this discussion has whetted your appetite for WARABI-MOCHI mentioned by Royall Tyler, you can see photos of three modern variations (with fruit, with orange, with grape) with recipes in Japanese.

    (4) Carcinogenic?

    But don't eat too much, whatever you do

    In Japan the reaction of my chief informant--mother-in-law--was that warabi was not poisonous but is sometimes said to contain cancer-causing substances ("hatsu-gan butsu wo fukunde iru to iwarete iru")

    Judi and Carl Manning in their "Is this Plant Edible" report that

    Bracken ferms--whose bracken ferns are eaten by many, have been found to contain many cancer-causing substances and toxins. This ferm may be responsible for the high incidence of stomach cancer in Japan, New Zealand, and the U.S.

    Oh dear, I was looking forward to buying warabi today!

    Michael Watson

    [I've corrected the spelling of "poisoning"--who is this illiterate?--and made links out of the url. /Editor]

    From: Reinhard Zoellner,


    Now to the problem of eating warabi:
    The Katsuyama-ki (or Myouhouji-ki), a sengoku period chronicle of the Fuji region (Kai province), mentions that, in autumn 1518 (Eishou 15), local people faced starvation because of bad harvests. The chronicle continues:

    "Until the 9th month, people dug _warabi_; but this year, they did not dig out all _warabi_; they went on digging (it) until the next 5th month." Thus, although people obviously were not too enthusiastic about it, they could not choose but eat warabi instead of crops. Still, it seems that they put up with that diet for some nine months. In Japanese encyclopedias, I found that fresh warabi leaves are still used for tsukemono or dried vegetables, while the stalk contains starch used for warabi-mochi or dango.

    From: Royall Tyler

    Thank you to those who answered on this one, especially to Michael and his magnificent web research, and to Richard Zoellner with his fascinating reference. I had heard of the stomach cancer hyothesis before, but who knows whether there is any truth to it? My wife and I must have enough bracken shoots in season to live on nothing else... but perhaps we won't.

    From: Hank Glassman

    Just a quick note on bracken. I love to eat those little fiddle-heads, or used to . . . I have a friend who knows something about these matters who once told me that they are, in fact, poisonous. (This did not stop me from eating the ones before me on my plate that brought up the topic.) He said that this is true of all ferns, whether cinnamon, bracken, ostrich, etc. -- although the concentrations of the poisons differ. It seems that the key is that, as Prof. Tyler noted in his original query, the effect is cumulative. It seems the toxin stays in your system, but has no effect until it reaches fatal levels. You are allotted a certain number of delicious plates of yama-no-sachi and then you die, suddenly. I am saving the rest of mine for later.

    I certainly don't think that Prof. Tyler was in any way suggesting this, but it would probably be a mistake to read any hidden malice into the Ajari's gift of the incrementally deadly bracken to Nakanokimi.

    From: Royall Tyler

    Goodness me, no. Besides, in case of malice, I'm sure there were more effective products available.
    From: David Pollack

    Which makes we wonder about early poisons. What was available besides bracken fern? And the business about building up a finally lethal dose reminds me of the Chinese Daoists, whom Needham has "transcending" the world by means of a slow buildup of "cinnebar" and other heavy-metal concoctions that at first induced a feeling of well-being, right up to the time they did one in -- and the body indeed did not rot, because the metals also killed all the bacteria that cause it to. Also the Borgias, who common wisdom has it consumed small doses of arsenic as a homeopathic measure against poisoning. They and the Daoists must have learned to calibrate extremely nicely. Was poisoning used in Japan?
    From: Royall Tyler

    When I wrote my message about more effective products, I too, like David Pollack, wondered about those products. I second his question.
    From: David Olson

    A very mystifying thread, partly because the subject line has changed so many times it's impossible to review in the archives. With only six score messages, the list has already developed an *ougi* known only to a select few.

    I would appreciate it if someone could send me (by private e-mail) the original post.

    Ptaquiloside - the Poison in Bracken by David Bradley Extremely detailed but readable review. The tender young shoots contain the most ptaquiloside (putakiroshido).

    >more effective products

    (again, I don't know what the original query was, but)

    isn't there a Kyougen play about poison, Busu (Aconitum)? --- extremely similar to a short story by Yitzak Bashevis Singer. Competent person must go on an errand, doesn't want incompetent person (taroukaja/Schlemiel) to eat up all the sugar/jam, so s/he tells him that it's poison. Schlaroukaja meanwhile botches his minimal duties, decides to commit suicide by eating the "poison," discovers its sweetness, and indulges.

    Toxically yours,

    David Olson

    From: Gary Cadwallader

    Althought I know of no substances traditionally used as poisons (except torikabuto), in the Way of Tea, there have been mentions of poisons or fear of them. The most famous one I know of was one of the rumors surrounding Sen Rikyu's so called "suicide sentence" (for which there is no direct historical evidence that Hideyoshi actually orderd Rikyu to kill himself), which rumor being that Rikyu was in a position to poison Hideyoshi through tea.

    The movie "Rikyu" has a scene in which one of Hideyoshi's generals- Ishida Mitsunari, who was probably the one most responsible for Rikyu's suicide, gives Rikyu a bottle of foreign (Portuguese) poison and suggests that Rikyu use it when he entertains Tokugawa Eiyasu. Whatever the truth to that scene, even now in the making of a bowl of tea, we emphasize movements which may be interpreted as moves to prevent a guest from becoming concerned that the tea is being poisoned or somehow polluted. For example, the sleeve is never over the bowl, hands go around rather than over the bowl, the teascoop, which goes into the powdered tea is wiped, the bowl and teawhisk are rinsed in hot water before putting the tea in the bowl, the tea container itself is put ion a cloth bag with a string tied in a knot, the cloth used to dry the bowl is always new and pure white, the tea whisk is always in view of the guests, the hands are never out of sight, etc, etc. There are ancient practices now discontinued which reflect a concern for "purity" and the guests feeling of safety, as well. There is an '''everybody knows but no one can sight a quote" explanation that the gold foil on the bottom of the ivory lid of the thick tea container is somehow a preventative or a sign that poison has not been used. Of course this is riduculous, since gold is one of the least reactive elements in the natural world, so its use would hardly show a reaction to poison.

    I could go on if there is any interest in this aspect.

    Gary Cadwallader

    From: Tom Harper

    How fascinating to learn that so much of what we regard a purely aesthetic pursuit once had such practical value as an assurance that one's life was not in danger. No, literature is by no means our only concern. Yes, by all means let us hear more from [Gary Cadwallader] on this aspect of Ceremonial Tea.
    Dear Tom and Lewis

    Allow me to begin by addressing the various points.
    > I'd naively believed that the rules  and conventions of Tea were purely formal

    In the beginning, there were probably no rules as such for making the tea, any more or any less than, say making a cup of coffee. The practice of making and serving matcha- powdered gren tea was brought back to Japan in the late 12th century by Yosai (aka Eisai) along with Rinzai Zen. In the temples of Song China, tea was drunk as a way to stay awake during meditation and as a way to draw the monastic community together by conviviality over bowls of matcha. This exotic foreign practice was brought to Japan, along with Rinzai Zen, just at the time when the warrior class was taking control of the goverment from the aristocracy, who looked down their noses at the parvenue and uncultured soldiers. In an effort to gain some cultural standing for themselves, the warriorclases took to Zen, as opposed to the aristocrat's religion-Shingon ot Tendai, and there in the Zen monasteries found many things which they adopted as "their" culture- the latest in Chinese poetry and language, calligraphy, literature, and interesting daily schedules. It has been suggested that the warriors were attracted to the rigorous round of daily life in the monasteries because it reminded them of their life in the battle camps, without the fear for their lives. It has often been remarked that contact with Zen helped warriors face that fear more easily as well. At any rate the point here is that tea was part of the daily routine the warriors found in the monasteries and that they took it as well as other, physical Chinese art works back home with them. There began an appreciation of Chinese art in coordination with the monastics and the merchants who were also emerging as a distinct class at the same time. Both were looking for a culture differnt from the aristocrats, who wouldn't consider receiving them for some time. Anyway there is no evidence that a distinct procedure such as we see today was part of the daily tea drinking. That "ritual" evolved over the next several hundred years in Japan, as the making of the tea moved from being made in a back room by servants, to being made in the corridor outside the kaijo (by experts known as doboshu) where the principles were entertaining themselves with poetry-renga most likely, to being made in the same room as the principles and ultimately by the hand of the host himself. Being made by the host probably led to a greater aesthetic consciousness of forms and actions (perhaps influenced by the warriors practice of dancing and Noh recitation) which lead to the creation of what is known as the temae, "point in front" of oneself. (and by the way, the word "tea ceremony" is verbus non gratis among the chajin of today, despite its longevity. It tends to seperate people from the participatory aspect of the occasion and it is too broad in covering too many different things.)

    A complete 4 hour tea gathering with charcoal, food and sake, thick tea and thin tea for 4-5 guests, the real "thing of tea" is called a chaji- literally tea thing. An informal gathering, offering a bowl or two of tea and a sweet plus or minus a snack, to up to a thousand guests(!!) is called a chakai- "meeting for tea."

    The procedures for making tea are called temae, "point in front." They are something like musical scores with set constellations of features. There are hundreds of such "scores" but each time it is done, it is unique. The seriousness and skill exhibited in doing one of these temae is probably what brought the feeling of a distant "ceremonial" to what should be a deeply personal and warmly felt act of hospitality.

    The whole idea of the temae is similar to something done so many times that it comes to form a pattern- like making coffee every morning the same way or anything you can do on "auto-pilot." The greatest musicians need no score. Ideally, the temae does itself because you have repeated it under the eyes of your teacher so often that you no longer need the constant reminders- left, right. It becomes part of your body. And the temae is an exquisite distilation of just what is needed to do a job perfectly, with no wasted or symbolic gestures- the influence of Zen no doubt. The basic way to prepare the tea is to bring all the utensils together, purify the tea container and tea scoop, add hot water to the bowl to warm it and to dampen the tines of the tea whisk while examining it for flaws, drying the teabowl, adding the appropriate amounts of tea and hot water and whipping it into a froth or kneading it into a creamy elixir. Everything is done with a practical as well as aesthetic principle/purpose in mind= warm the bowl because lukewarm tea is just not good, dry the bowl because lumps will form on the wet bowl and lumpy tea is just not good, dampen the tines of the whisk because otherwise the tea will stick to it, cause lumps or just generally make a mess of it. The purification of the tea container and the tea scoop not only brings the heart/minds of the host and guests into harmony, it helps all participants share in a purification of their own hearts. Harmony-WA- is one of the four principles of Chanoyu, along with KEI-respect, SEI-purity and JAKU-tranquility.

    But anyway to continue with the idea of reassuring the guests, harmony and respect would dictate that no sense of fear be present. Purity helps insure this feeling is reinforced by the host's actions, eg. purifying the teascoop with a silk cloth so any poisons might be rubbed off, the use of a brand new, pure white bamboo tea whisk and hemp drying cloth, rinsing the teabowl not only to warm it but again so any stain/dust might be removed. So really the idea of insuring your guests calm heart was foremost a practice of hospitality. In Chanoyu, form first, filled with heart as you mature as a chajin.

    >and had been expediently
    >devised along the lines of (trivial, often enough) distinctions in
    >readings among ryuuha of the Kokindenju, i.e. with a view to securing
    >the identities of differing lineages.

    Just when and how the forms came to be divided into lineages is still an interesting question. It was in the mid-Edo period that rules and lineages began to solidify. Let me enphasize the differences in procedures was first along family lines, then class distinctions- wabicha for merchants, daimyo cha for daimyo and last, the very minute flowering of tea for the the mid-Edo Anyway, before this becomes to long, let me post it.

    Gary Cadwallader

    [in response to the announcement that this archive had been edited for the pmjs site]

    From: David Olson
    Date: Tue, 12 Oct 1999 13:11:02 -0700
    Subject: Re: new PMJS archives

    Thank you, Michael. A lot of work. I feel giri.

    As a way of discharging my _giri_, let me mention that as a technical translator I have a lot of dictionaries right here at home on plants (e.g. Makino) and chemistry, and I welcome questions on these subjects. I'm curious about their traditional uses.

    David Olson

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