Toxicological and Medicinal Aspects of the Most Frequent Fern Species, Pteridium aquilinum (L.) Kuhn



Bracken fern, Pteridium aquilinum (L.) Kuhn, is not only a worldwide distributed aggressive weed species, but it has great toxicological-eco-toxicological importance in medicine and veterinary medicine, based on its characteristic chemical composition. The plant has different secondary plant metabolites of potentially high biological activities.

Compounds of anti-thiamine character (thiaminase and thermostable other molecules) can cause vitamin B1 deficiencies (first of all in monogastric animals). Bracken fern has a cyanogenetic potential, through occurrence of cyanogen glycoside prunasin. This cyanogen compound has a protective role (against insects) in its life but found low contents do not indicate an actual possibility of poisoning in higher animals or in humans.

Compounds of illudane skeleton (ptaquiloside and its derivatives) are the most problematic components. Ptaquiloside (=PT) belongs to glycosides of norsesquiterpene type and the plant organs (rhizome, roots, fronds and spores) contain it in greatly different concentrations. The ruminants (mainly the cattle) have distinct syndromes caused by PT:
  1. (a)

    The bovine enzootic haemature (BEH): a worldwide distributed syndrome (bleedings, later different epithelial and mesenchymal tumours / bladder /characteristic biochemical parameters in blood and urine)

  2. (b)

    Acute haemorrhagic disease: the bracken plants raise damages of bone marrow (as consequences: abnormal low number of platelets, haemorrhagic symptoms, etc. and finally fatal end are produced)

  3. (c)

    Bright blindness: a progressive retinal atrophy of sheep (extremely rare of cattle)


Human problems: There is a significant correlation between the occurrence of different cancer forms (oesophageal, gastric and others) and bracken consumption. The milk of animals fed bracken containing forage (hay) can unfortunately transport PT to human organism, causing carcinogenesis. Carcinogen action of PT on animal or human organisms is based on production of an unstable dienon intermediate (via hydrolysis), which can form covalent adduct of DNA. The modified structures of certain bases can lead to different genetic mutations; these are the basis of the carcinogenesis.

PT is measurable not only in bracken plant but in underlying litter and soil layers as well as in ground water. These new data call our attention to the importance of better understanding of possibly fate (transport, stability or instability) of carcinogen PT in our ecosystem. The bracken fern suggest authentic interdisciplinary problems.


Caffeic Acid Packed Cell Volume Thiamine Deficiency Fern Species Cyanogen Glycoside 


  1. Alonso-Amelot, M.E., Oliveros, A., Calcagno, M.P., and Arellano, E. 2001. Bracken adaptation mechanisms and xenobiotic chemistry. Pure Appl. Chem. 73:549–553.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Alonso-Amelot, M.E., Castillo, U., Smith, B.L., and Lauren, D.R. 1996. Bracken ptaquiloside in milk. Nature 382:587.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Alonso-Amelot, M.E. and Avendano, M. 2002. Human carcinogenesis and bracken fern: a review of the evidence. Curr Med Chem 9:675–686.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Alonso-Amelot, M.E. and Oliveros, A. 2000. A method for the practical quantification and kinetic devaluation of cyanogenesis in plant material. Application to Pteridium aquilinum and Passiflora capsularis. Phytochem. Anal. 11:309–316.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Beniston, R.G., Morgan, I.M., O’Brien, V., and Campo, M.S. 2001. Quercetin E7 and p53 in papillomavirus oncogenic cell transformation. Carcinogenesis 22:1069–1076.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Bertone, J.J., Hintz, H.F., and Schryver, H.H. 1984. Effect of caffeic acid on thiamin status of ponies. Nutr. Rep. Int. 30:281.Google Scholar
  7. Bringuier, P.P., Piaton, E., Berger, E., Debruyne, F., Perrin, P., Schalken, J., and Devonec, M. 1995. Bracken-fern induced bladder tumors in guinea-pigs. A model for human neoplasia. Am. J. Pathol. 147:858–568.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Castillo, U. F., Ojika, M., Alonso-Amelot, M., and Sakagami, Y. 1998. Ptaquiloside Z, a new toxic unstable sesquiterpene glycoside from the neotropical bracken fern Pteridium aquilinum var. caudatum. Bioorg. Med. Chem. 6:2229–2233.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Castillo, U.F., Wilkins, A.L., Lauren, D.R., Smith, B.L., Towers, N.R., Alonso-Amelot, M.E., and Jaime-Espinoza, R. 1997. Isoptaquiloside and caudatoside illudane-type sesquiterpene glycosides from Pteridium aquilinum var. caudatum. Phytochemistry 44:901–906.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Chick, B.F., McCleary, B.V., and Beckett, R.J. 1989. Thiaminases. In Toxicants of plant origin Vol. III. Proteins and amino acids, ed. P.R. Cheeke, p. 82. Boca Raton: CRC PressGoogle Scholar
  11. Cornara, L., Roccotiello, E., Minganti, V., Drava, G., De Pellegrini, R., and Marioti, M.G. 2007. Level of trace elements in Pteridophytes growing on serpentine and metalliferous soils. J. Plant Nutr. Soil Sci. 170:781–787.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Fenwick, G.R. 1988. Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) toxic effects and toxic constituents. J. Sci. Food Agric. 46:147–173.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Fernandes, W.R., Garcia, R.C.M., Medeiros, R.M.A., and Birgel, E.H. 1990. Experimental Pteridium aquilinum intoxication of horses. Arquivos da Escola de Medicina Veterinaria da Universidade Federal da Bahia 13:112–124.Google Scholar
  14. Freitas, R.N., O’Connor, P.J., Prakash, A.S., Shahin, M., and Povey, A.C. 2001. Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) induced DNA adducts in mouse tissues are different from the adduct induced by the activated form of the bracken ptaquiloside. Biochem. Biophys. Res. Commun. 281:589–594.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Gounalan, S., Somvanshi, R., Kataria, M., Bisht, G.S., Smith, B.L., and Lauren, D.R. 1999. Effect of bracken (Pteridium aquilinium) and Dryopteris (Dryopteris juxtaposita) fern toxicity in laboratory rabbits. Indian J. Exp. Biol. 37:980–985.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Hadfield, P.R. and Dyer, A.F. 1986. Polymorphism of cyanogenesis in British populations of bracken (Pteridium aquilinum L. Kuhn.). In: Bracken – ecology, land use and control technology. The proceedings of the international conference, Bracken 85. eds. Smith, R.T. and Taylor, J.A., pp. 293–300. Carnforn: Parthenon Publishing.Google Scholar
  17. Konishi, T. and Ichijo, S. 1984. Experimentally induced equine bracken poisoning by thermostable factor (SF factor) extracted from dried bracken, J. Jpn. Vet. Med. Assoc. 37:730–734.Google Scholar
  18. Krishna, L., Vaid, J., and Dawara, R.K. 1991. Enzootic bovine hematuria in cattle: II. Pathomorphological immunofluorescent and immunological studies. Indian J. Vet. Pathol. 15:30–34.Google Scholar
  19. Krishna, L. and Dawara, R.K. 1994. Bracken fern induced carcinoma in guinea pigs. Indian J. Vet. Pathol. 18:21–26.Google Scholar
  20. Kumar, K.A., Kataria, M., and Somvanshi, R. 1999. Biochemical and histopathological changes due to cheilanthes and bracken fern toxicity in guinea pigs. Indian J. Vet. Patthol. 23:36–38.Google Scholar
  21. Kumar, K.A., Kataria, M., and Somvanshi, R. 2000. Haematobiochemical evaluation of bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) and cheilanthes (Cheilanthes farinose) fern feeding in guinea pigs. Indian J. Environ. Toxicol. 10:30–33.Google Scholar
  22. Marliere, C.A., Santos, R.C., Galvao, M.A.M., and Soares, J.F. 1998. Ingestao de broto de samambaia e risco sde cancer de esofago e estomago na regiao de Ouro Preto, Mg. Revista Brasiliera de Cancerologia 44:225–229.Google Scholar
  23. Meyer, P. 1989. Thiaminase activities and thiamine content of Pteridium aquilinum, Equisetum ramossisimum, Malva parviflora, Pennisetum clandestinumm and Medicago sativa. Onderstepoort J. Vet. Res. 56:145–146.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Moerman, R.C. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, PortlandGoogle Scholar
  25. Ojika, M., Wakamatsu, K., Iwa, H., and Yamada, K. 1987. Ptaquiloside, a potent carcinogen isolated from bracken fern Pteridium aquilinum var. lutiusculum: Structure elucidation based on chemical and spectral evidence and reactions with amino acids, nucleosides and nucleotides. Tetrahedron Lett. 43:5261.Google Scholar
  26. Ovesen, R.G., Rasmussen, L.H., and Hansen, H.C.B. 2008. Degradation kinetics of ptaquiloside in soil and soil solution. Environ. Toxic. Chem. 27:252–259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Pamukcu, A.M., Erturk, E., Yalciner, S., Milli, U., and Bryan, G.T. 1978. Carcinogenic and mutagenic activities of milk from cows fed bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum). Cancer Res. 38:1556–1560.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Prakash, A.S., Pereire, T.N., Smith, B.L., Shaw, G., and Seewright, A.A. 1996. Mechanism of bracken fern carcinogenesis: evidence for H-ras activation via initial adenine alkylation by ptaquiloside. Nat. Toxins 4:221–227.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Rasmussen, L.H. 2003. Ptaquiloside – an environmental Hazard? Ph.D. Thesis Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University Frederiksberg, pp. 1–125. DenmarkGoogle Scholar
  30. Rasmussen, L.H., Hansen, H.C.B., and Lauren, D. 2005. Sorption, degradation and mobility of ptaquiloside a carcinogenic bracken (Pteridium aquilinum sp.) constituent, in the soil environment. Chemosphere 58:823–835.Google Scholar
  31. Rasmussen, L. H., Lauren, D. R., Smith, B. L., and Hansen, H. C. B. 2008. Variation in ptaquiloside content in bracken (Pteridium esculentum (Forst. F) Cockayne) in New Zealand. N.Z. Vet. J. 56:304–309.Google Scholar
  32. Roperto, S., Borzacchiello, G., Brun, R., Leonardi, L., Maiolino, P., Martano, M., Paciello, O., Papparella, S., Restucci, B., Russo., V., Salvatore., Urraro, C., and Roperto, F. 2010. A review of bovine urothelial tumours and tumour-like lesions of the urinary bladder. J. Comp. Pathol. 142:95–108.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Rout, S.D., Panda, T., and Mishra, N. 2009. Ethnomedicinal studies on some pteridophytes of Similipal Biosphere Reserve, Orissa, India. Int. J. Med. Med. Sci. 1:192–197.Google Scholar
  34. Rymer, L. 1976. The history and ethnobotany of bracken. Bot. J. Linnean Society 73:151–176.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Samecka-Cymerman, A., Garbiec, K., Kolon, K., and Kempers, A.J. 2009. Factor analysis of the elemental composition of Pteridium aqulinum from serpentine and granite soils as a tool in the classification of relations between this composition and the type of parent rock in the Sleza Massif in Lower Silesia, Poland. Environ. Geol. 58:509–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Siman, S.E., Povey, A.C., Ward, T.H., Margison, G.P., and Sheffield, E. 2000. Fern spore extracts can damage DNA. Br. J. Cancer 83:69–73.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Singh, R.P., Joshi, H.C., and Kumar, M. 1987. Experimental bracken fern toxicity in calves: changes in blood and urine. Indian J. Vet. Med. 7:96–100.Google Scholar
  38. Smith, B.L. 2004. Bracken fern (genus Pteridium) toxicity – a global problem. In: Poisonous plants and related toxins, ed. Acamovic, T., Stewart, C. S., and Pennycott, T. W., pp. 224–240. Wallingford: CAB InternationalGoogle Scholar
  39. Smith, B.L., Seawright, A.A., Jack, C.Ng., Hertle, A.T., Thompson, J.A., and Bostock, P.D. 1994. Concentration of Ptaquiloside in Bracken Fern (Pteridium spp.), from Eastern Australia and from a Cultivated Worldwide Collection Held. Nat. Toxins 9:347–353.Google Scholar
  40. Somvanshi, R., Lauren, D.R., Smith, B.L., Dawra, R.K., Sharma, O.P., Sharma, V.K., Singh, A.K., and Gangwar, N.K. 2006. Estimation of the fern toxin, ptaquiloside, in certain Indian ferns other than bracken. Curr. Sci. 91:1547–1552.Google Scholar
  41. Souto, M., Kommers, G.D., Barros, C.S., Rech, R.R., and Piazer, J.V.M. 2006. Urinary bladder neoplasms associated with bovine enzootic haematuria. Ciencia Rural 36:1647–1650.Google Scholar
  42. Sundermann, F.M. 1987. Bracken poisoning in sheep. Aust. Vet. J. 64:25–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Veitch, B. 1990. Aspects of aboriginal use and manipulation of bracken fern, In Bracken Biology and Management, eds. J.A. Taylor and R.T. Smith, pp. 215–226. Sydney: Australian Institute of Agricultural Science Occasional Publishers.Google Scholar
  44. Wadhwa, D.R., Prasad, B., and Rao, V.N. 2001. Haematobiological changes in enzootic bovine haematuria. Indian J. Vet. Med. 21:21–24.Google Scholar
  45. Waller, P.J., Bernes, G., Thamsborg, S.M., Sukura, A., Richter, S.H., Ingebrigtsen, K., and Höglund, J. 2001. Plants as de-worming agents of livestock in the Nordic countries: historical perspective, popular beliefs and prospects for the future. Acta Vet. Scand. 42:31–44.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  46. Watson, W.A., Barlow, R.M., and Barnett, K.C. 1965. Bright blindness, a condition prevalent in Yorkshire hill sheep. Vet. Rec. 77:1060–1069.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  47. Williams, D.R. and Evans, R.A. 1959. Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum). The effect of steaming on the nutritive value of bracken hay. Brit. J. Nutr. 13:129–136.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. Yamada, K., Ojika, M., and Kigoshi, H. 2007. Ptaquiloside, the major toxin of bracken, and related terpene glycosides: chemistry, biology and ecology. Nat. Prod. Rep. 24:798–813.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BotanySzent István UniversityBudapestHungary

Personalised recommendations