Oh, Fiddleheads: Edible Spring Fern Fronds

Named for the ornamental scroll at the end of a violin’s neck, fiddleheads are the beginning of a fern frond of certain fern species and is often considered a springtime delicacy.

  • Fiddleheads are the emerging fronds of certain species of ferns. They are called this because of their similar appearance to the ornate curled design on the heads of fiddles.
    Photo courtesy fotolia/duke2015
  • Promise of good things to come—the fiddleheads on this plant are just a couple of days away from being ready for harvest. The harvest season in Maine lasts for several weeks, but at any specific location the delicate fronds are at their peak for only a week or two.
    Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com

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?



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