The seasonal abundance of fiddleheads is one of the great delights of living in New England. This gift of nature, freely given to anyone willing to spend a pleasant spring afternoon picking them, is delicious, nutritious, and just plain fun. They have a long tradition of use here in Maine, as well as the rest of New England and Canada. Perhaps this is due to the influence of the early French settlers, many of whom were accustomed to eating fiddleheads in the old country. They were also widely used by the Native Americans for centuries before the arrival of Europeans. Certainly, the fact that fiddleheads are one of the earliest fresh vegetables available in spring renders them decidedly appreciated after the long, cold winters of the region.
Fiddleheads are the emerging fronds of certain species of ferns, bursting with life and vigor after a long winter’s rest. They are aptly named, because their spiral structure couldn’t be more like the ornamental scroll at the end of a violin’s neck. They are produced by a number of fern species throughout much of North America. Wherever they may grow, they emerge in the first days of warm spring weather. They are one of the first fresh vegetables available in the course of each year—a welcome treat and a wake-up call, premonitory of the comestible splendors to come. They also serve as a gentle reminder of the constant change that typifies nature, as the ephemeral harvest season lasts but a few short weeks.
Here in the Northeast, the predominant species for fiddlehead harvest is the Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). Many ferns make edible fiddleheads, but those of the Ostrich fern are unique, surrounded as they are by papery brown husks from which the developing frond emerges. They can be further identified by the smooth stem and deeply indented, U-shaped groove inside each stem. Each tender, succulent coil is about an inch in diameter. The whole thing, including 2 or 3 inches of stem supporting the coil, is the part you pick and eat.
Ferns tend to grow in moist, even wet conditions and often with less than full sunshine—Ostrich fern is no exception. Here in Maine, it is found growing along the banks of rivers and streams, around the margins of our thousands of ponds and lakes, in floodplains, and even in roadside ditches. Since our sunshine is really never that intense, even at the peak of summer, they are occasionally found growing in open ground. The plants reproduce by spores but often increase more rapidly via their aggressive rhizomes, sometimes creating stands of several acres in extent, often in the shelter of maples or ash trees.
In spring, each plant sends forth from three to a dozen fiddleheads. Harvesting couldn’t be simpler, once a correct identification has been made. [NOTE—not all fern fronds are edible—some are poisonous and should not be eaten.] The tender little spirals should be harvested when only a couple of inches high. At that stage, they are brittle and easily pulled from the plant. The stem should be tightly coiled, and the brown scales surrounding them should brush off easily, although they may be removed later as well.
The environments favored by the Ostrich fern are preferred by humans as well—natural places, usually with a river as a backdrop. The individual fiddleheads are small, of course, and it takes a lot of picking to make a dish of them. But a good stand of them yields a lot of fiddleheads, and they quickly add up to quite a pile! In those first warm days of high spring, there is surely no better place to be than meandering through open woods along the water’s edge, enjoying the various sights, smells and sounds of the northern woods awakening from winter’s slumber. When a sufficient number has been collected, you could call it a day. But planning ahead and bringing a picnic lunch is a better plan. You kick back; refresh yourself, and who’s to blame you if you indulge in a second picking session before heading back to the kitchen to process your harvest?
And that’s not a bad idea, because fiddlehead season is short, only a couple of weeks at any location—best harvest what you can, while you can.
Once your hoard is safely back home, you’ll need to process them promptly, as fiddleheads are perishable. The first step is to complete the removal of the papery brown covering. It’s easily done by rinsing under the tap, brushing gently. You want to get rid of as much of this as possible, because it’s high in tannin and its presence would undermine the delicate flavor of the fiddleheads themselves. A gentle stream of water is also invaluable to remove bits of dirt or sand, which are easily picked up in the ornate structure of the fiddlehead as it emerges from the soil.
Fiddleheads keep well in the refrigerator for up to a couple of weeks or so. For longer-term storage, they are often frozen. To freeze them, blanch your cleaned fiddleheads for two minutes in boiling water. Then cool by plunging into ice water and freeze. They will keep for up to a year in your freezer. They should still be subjected to the proper amount of cooking time when finally prepared for the table. Fiddleheads may also be canned or worked up into pickles.
In the kitchen, fiddleheads may be used like many other green vegetables, including asparagus. They are superb in vegetable medleys, properly cooked and then chilled as a salad, or on toast. They are such a delicacy; the best way may simply be to steam and serve immediately with a dollop of butter, salt and pepper. Nothing could better showcase their honest flavor.
KNOW YOUR FERNS
Most ferns make fronds that look like the edible fiddlehead, but not all ferns are edible. It is vitally important to make a correct identification when harvesting. Some ferns are poisonous, including the ubiquitous Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum). Each region has its own preferred species for fiddlehead harvest. In New England and the northeast, as well as in Northern or Boreal Forest worldwide, it is the Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). In the west, it’s the Western Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum), sometimes called the “king of northwest ferns.” Around the world there are several other widely distributed species; the Cinnamon Fern, Royal Fern and Lady Fern, among others.
It is highly recommended that any would-be fiddlehead gatherers familiarize themselves with the appropriate local species, and do not collect fiddleheads until you are positive of the identification. This may require studying the ferns in question the previous year, observing the plants at full development. You must be absolutely certain: this is very important.
Avoid Food Borne Illness
Fiddleheads have been known to cause illness. Symptoms of toxicity include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, with the onset usually occurring within an hour of consuming them. Experts say that the cause has yet to be identified, but stress that on no account should fiddleheads be consumed raw. They recommend boiling for 15 minutes or steaming for 10-12 minutes. That said, their use as an early spring green predates the coming of Europeans in North America, and thousands of people enjoy them annually.
WARNING: Some ferns are very poisonous. Do not use any of them for food unless you are certain they are edible varieties. No fern should ever be consumed raw.
Randel A. Agrella has overseen rare seed production at Baker Creek since 2005. He writes and lectures extensively, and owns and operates AbundantAcres.net, which has grown and shipped strictly heirloom, chemical-free veggie starts and plants, since 2004. He has recently relocated to Maine, and you can follow the development of his organic micro-farm, Parsnippity Farm, on Facebook.