Almost everyone has heard of “fiddlehead ferns,” the young fern wild edible, turn gourmet vegetable can be found across much of North America in the mid to late springtime.
Few wild edibles are so easily spotted, convenient and tasty, or so widely available. They are high in fiber, vitamin C, vitamin A, and omega-3 fatty acids. Fiddleheads can be a part of a healthy everyday diet, you don’t have to wait for a survival situation to enjoy them.
Since edible ferns take up so much space and many have to be picked for even a small meal most people do not specifically grow them for a food source. This usually does not pose a problem since they are so plentiful in the wild. However, wild ferns are also surrounded by some confusion. Many people believe that all fiddleheads are edible, while others are so nervous about picking the wrong verity they pass on them all together. In this article I will boil down what to look for, how to cook it, and of course how to store it. That way if need arises that you could really use that extra food resource, you will know just what pick.
I grew up on the doorstep of the foothills of the Selkirk Mountains in Washington State, in the summer there were fern patches as far as the eye can see. Even as an adult I am fortunate enough to live in an area where editable ferns abundantly grow, so I am very familiar with this food source.
While there are several types of ferns, when people talk about eating “fiddlehead ferns” they are most often talking about the Ostrich Fern. This is the species often available in produce markets and sometimes even on the menus of fine restaurants. They grow mostly in shady river bottoms, along creeks, and anywhere where there is plenty of moisture they often cover many acres of ground. Ostrich ferns range from Newfoundland to Alaska and British Colombia, the Pacific Northwest, south to northern California, the Midwest, and the Southern Appalachians. It is also abundant in the upper Great Lakes, the Northeast, and much of southern Canada – so pretty much everywhere.
It is important to properly identify Ostrich ferns.
There is a deep, ”U”-shaped groove on the inside of the smooth stem that usually runs the entire length of the stalk. Think of the shape of celery when looking for this.
There are thin, brown, paper-like flakes covering the newly emerging tightly spiraled fiddleheads. The flakes fall off as the fiddlehead grows and elongates and are easily rubbed off, but underneath should be a smooth pretty jade green. The heads should be spiraled in that typical fiddlehead style and similar in size to a half-dollar coin give or take a little.
Avoid colored ferns and ferns with an all-over fuzziness.
If you wanted to grow ostrich fern they are commonly available at most green houses, since fern grow from spores and root systems, there aren’t “seeds” to plant per se, but you can purchase young plants and place them in shaded areas of your yard.
What’s the Deal with “Bracken Ferns?”
Bracken ferns are also a common large fern, they sport a single, erect stem and closely resemble the ostrich fern to the untrained eye. Brackens are also noted for their large, highly divided leaves, and lack of a U shaped channel. Found in northern and mountainous regions, they may be the most prolific fern in North America and in the world.
There is a great deal of debate about the edibility of bracken fern, which is why it is frequently mentioned online and in foraging books. I think both sides have valid points. There is an enormous body of evidence that it is edible. It is regularly eaten by hundreds of thousands of people, and in North America was a traditional food for many Native cultures. However, a quick search on the internet will turn up hundreds of sources, including numerous universities, telling you that this plant is poisonous, and should never be eaten. This advice is due to the presence of a very potent carcinogen called ptaquiloside which has been proven to cause illness in livestock. The upside of ptaquiloside, is that it’s not heat-stable and it is said to be destroyed by cooking.
While it is advisable to eat all fiddleheads cooked (source), if you choose to collect bracken fern fiddleheads, they should definitely be cooked to destroy the ptaquiloside. That being said, until you become more familiar with fiddlehead ferns, it is the official stance of this article to stick to Ostrich ferns.
The survival guys on TV and YouTube that run around in the woods eating whatever fiddlehead they find raw are perpetuating a myth and promoting unsafe wild foraging skills.
How to Harvest Fiddleheads and Ensure a Future Harvest
Before harvesting fiddleheads, make sure that you have the permission of the landowner. If you are not sure who owns the property, assume someone does and check with the town office where the property is located to get the owner’s name. Consider offering to trade or barter for the fiddleheads you pick, maybe give them some cleaned fiddleheads in exchange for the privilege of picking.
Harvest them when they are four to twelve inches tall – as long as they are still tender and the leafy portion of the frond is not yet unfurled. Depending on how old the plant is the bottom quarter or so of the stalk may be too tough to eat; with some practice you’ll get the hang of knowing where to break them off. Harvest fiddleheads by snapping them off by hand or cutting them off with a knife.
Many people only collect the tightly coiled tops of the fiddleheads, leaving behind the juicy stalk, but I enjoy the flavor and the texture of the stalks in addition to coiled leafy tips. By cutting them with as much stack as you can a fiddlehead patch will yield a lot more good food.
When cutting fiddleheads, take care not to damage the remaining fiddleheads. The fiddleheads that remain to grow into fern fronds will be providing you with next year’s harvest. Try to pick no more than one half of the emerged fiddleheads from each healthy crown (more than two fiddleheads indicates a healthy fern crown), with no follow-up harvest of later-emerging fiddleheads in the same season, appears to be sustainable (source).
Once you get them home set about the task of cleaning them immediately. Please note – it is easier to rub those brown papery flakes off while dry than it is to wash them off. First examine the fiddleheads and rinse off any dirt or critters that might be on them and dry any that you had to rinse off. Lightly rub or brush the dry fiddleheads, to remove as much of the brown papery flakes as possible then finish by washing anything that remains off in cold running water.
TIP: If you have harvested a lot of fiddleheads, here is a tip that will help speed things along. Place small bunches of dry fiddleheads in a paper bag and shake them vigorously for a brief moment. When you peek in the bag you should find that most of the brown papery flakes are now in the bottom of the bag and the fiddleheads are significantly cleaner.
The safest cooking methods for fiddleheads is by boiling them in lightly salted water for 10-15 minutes or steaming them for about 10 minutes – I prefer them steamed If you don’t have a steamer, try a little collapsible steamer basket for a pot you already own and save some money. Even if you choose to use them in stir-fry, on the grill or in a salad they should at least be steamed first. This is suggested to prevent food borne illness that has been associated with wild fiddleheads. (source).
Serve at once with optional melted butter and/or vinegar topped with salt and pepper. The sooner they are eaten, the more delicate their flavor. I think their flavor resembles asparagus.
For those of you who have not mastered the art of canning yet, fiddleheads also freeze fairly well if you would like to set aside a bag or two to enjoy during winter. Blanch them for two minutes in small groups in 4-6 cups of water at a time – transfer immediately to and ice bath until cool. Dry the fiddleheads then stick them in a container to freeze. When you thaw them just remember, you still should cook them before eating them.
Of course I can them!
Fiddleheads can usually be collected in great abundance I would not let that abundance go to waste. Pickled fiddleheads make a great snack and a unique gift to friends. Might I also say they make a great martini garnish (just because I live in the country doesn’t mean I don’t know how to enjoy a good martini). There is even an approved canning recipe – which I will provide here.
To pickle fiddleheads, clean them first (as described above) then pour enough cider vinegar over the fiddleheads to cover, then strain it off into a pan. Add 1 cup sugar for every gallon of vinegar that you use.
Add a 1/8 teaspoon each of pepper, ground nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and celery seed (more or less of these spices will not effect the safety of the recipe). For a little heat, you may add red pepper flakes.
Boil this syrup for 7-8 minutes; then pour hot syrup over the fiddleheads in hot sterilized pint-sized jars. Top jars with sterilized lids and rings. Process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath canner, the go tool for anyone practicing self reliance (adjust processing time for your current altitude).
At the end of the processing time, remove jars and let them sit undisturbed for 24 hours, then check for a good seal. If any jars did not seal replace the lid and ring and reprocess the jar. Personally I like waiting at least three months to try them. This gives them a chance to ‘pickle.’
HEALTH NOTE: Fiddleheads contain various vitamins and minerals, as well as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. They are a source of antioxidants and dietary fibre. They are low in sodium, but rich in potassium, which may make them suitable for people who need a low-sodium diet. Fiddleheads may harbor microbes, and should be washed and cooked before eating. Many ferns also contain the enzyme thiaminase, which breaks down thiamine. This can lead to beriberi and other vitamin B complex deficiencies if consumed to excess or if one’s diet is lacking in these vitamins (source).
There are many articles, books and blog posts about fiddleheads any similarities are merely coincidence.
Here are a few books on Fiddleheads, and wild edibles if you would like to learn more!
- Fiddle Mania (some great recipes in this one along with foraging info)
- Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plums to Wineberries
- Northwest Foraging: The Classic Guide to Edible Plants of the Pacific Northwest