Foraging for Fiddlehead Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) is a great adventure and shouldn’t be missed! It’s one of the things I most look forward to in early spring. They are commonly eaten in New England and are considered a seasonal delicacy. In this blog, I’m going to share the top tips for harvesting fiddlehead ferns successfully: how to identify whether or not a plant is in fact a Fiddlehead Fern, the best practices on how to safely and sustainably harvest, and finally how to prepare them.
As spring begins to make itself known, Northeastern Connecticut is beginning to thaw, the robins have returned, and soon it will be time to start some spring foraging. Spring ephemerals like Yellow Trout Lily become available if you know where and when to look. It’s also nearly time to welcome the return of another spring favorite — the fiddlehead fern.
What are Fiddlehead Ferns?
Fiddleheads are the curled shoots of young ferns. In the U.S., people most commonly eat the Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum), and Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). Today, we’ll be focusing on ostrich ferns, and what I will be referring to interchangeably as fiddleheads―they’re my favorite and the ones that are most frequently found here in the Northeast.
In case you’re wondering, fiddleheads get their name from their resemblance to the heads of fiddles or violins, which are usually ornately carved to appear coiled.
Tip 1 - Identifying Fiddlehead Ferns
Scouting for fiddlehead ferns the year before can help you find the places where they grow. This will allow you to be waiting when the ferns first poke up from the ground in early spring. I also recommend investing in a few really good field guides to take with you into the field. Not sure what to buy? Here’s an article on the best plant identification and field guides that may be of interest to you.
What to look for
When opened, the fiddleheads are quite large, often growing up to 6 feet long! The green fronds, when unfurled are wider from the middle to the tip than at the base. Their shape and the way they bend forward toward the ground, remind people of ostrich feathers.
Each plant has 5-7 fronds growing in a rosette at the base. In the center of each rosette grow upright, brownish fronds that contain the spores.
Where to look
Fiddleheads prefer cool weather and wet, swampy ground with deep, rich soil. Be on the lookout for them near streams, creeks and rivers where the soil is moist.
The newly emerged fronds are the part you want and these can be found in the early spring. Depending on where you live, this could mean as early as April, or as late as June if you live in more northern areas like Canada. I have found them here in mid to late April and May.
Tip 2 -How To Harvest Fiddlehead Ferns
Most people prefer to eat the tightly curled fiddlehead tops, but the straight section of the unopened frond is good too. It’s really up to you and your taste preference. I bring a sharp paring knife with me which is one of the tools that is always packed in my foraging bag.
Sustainability is key– only collect half of the fiddles per crown, and never more than you need. As wild resources dwindle due to overharvesting and unethical practices, it’s increasingly important to be a conscientious forager. You can learn more about ethical foraging and the principles of sustainable harvesting here: 9 Basic Principles of Ethical Wildcrafting for Beginners
*Note – Sadly, I only collect enough fiddleheads from the wild for one meal a season, as these tasty greens are becoming increasingly rare in southern New England, but boy do I enjoy this one meal!
Tip 3- How to Prepare Fiddlehead Ferns
These tasty vegetable wonders are highly nutritious and can be eaten cooked and provide an excellent source of vitamins A & C as well as calcium, iron, phosphorus and protein.
*Note: Some sources say that fiddleheads can be eaten raw in small amounts. I’ve nibbled them on the trail without any harmful side effects, but I never eat more than a few. To be on the safe side, I prefer them cooked.
How to Clean
To prepare these yummy treats, the straight stalks and coiled tops should first be thoroughly washed in cold water to remove the papery scales. I usually fill up a clean sink and toss the fiddleheads in. Using my hands only I scrub away all the scales which end up floating to the top while the fiddleheads themselves sink to the bottom. I simply push the floating scales to the side and scoop up the clean fiddleheads.
How to Cook
My favorite way to eat fiddlehead ferns is steamed (10-12 minutes) or boiled (15 minutes) until tender and then lightly sauteed in butter with just a dash of salt. The flavor and texture are similar to asparagus and simply delicious!
*Note -Before you sauté fiddleheads, it’s important to steam or boil them thoroughly. Raw fiddleheads can contain trace amounts of toxins that have the potential to cause foodborne illness. Boiling and steaming will kill any harmful microorganisms. And because boiling or steaming will remove their bitterness, your fiddlehead meal will be tastier.
Since I only ever harvest enough fiddleheads to make one tasty meal each spring, I never have enough to put away for later, but if I did, I would preserve them by blanching and freezing the way I do nettles or milkweed.
- First, thoroughly clean the fiddleheads as described
- Blanch the fiddleheads for two (2) minutes.
- Plunge the fiddleheads into cold water, and then drain.
- Discard the blanching water.
- Pack the drained fiddleheads in freezer containers or bags.
- Store in the freezer for up to one year.
- When you are ready to prepare the fiddleheads for eating, follow the cooking instructions as described above.
If you decide to embark on a quest for Fiddlehead Ferns, be aware that the search will take practice and patience. Don’t despair if you fail in your initial attempts to find the tasty treat. And never eat anything unless you’re certain that it’s safe to do so. Learn about these elusive treats by reading up on their biology and appearance. After that, it’s just a matter of searching until you find them. In the end, Fiddlehead Ferns are definitely worth the effort, especially if they’re just starting to become seasonally available where you live.
Keeping a Foraging Journal
If you plan on foraging through the seasons, then I recommend that you start keeping a journal of where and when you find wild edible plants. I find this incredibly helpful. If you plan to forage seasonally, as I do, it can be difficult to rely on your memory to recall the exact location or month when you foraged a particular plant. By keeping a journal, your life will be much easier in the future.
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