By Stacey Sutherlin
I’m sure you’ve heard of fiddlehead ferns and perhaps you thought of those neat little twirls as ferns begin to bloom in the spring. Fiddleheads are another spring harvest of the wild, making them a springtime delicacy. As spring rolls in each year, it provides an abundance of opportunity for the person who truly enjoys to live off the land and flourish in what it provides. It is said that the Native Americans were the first to discover and enjoy the bounty of these harvested wild treats.
Fiddleheads have become one of springtime’s most desired harvests of the wild. Not everyone has had the pleasure of harvesting these desires of the wild and enjoying. Fiddleheads are the young coiled leaves of a fern. The young tightly coiled frond resembles the scroll at the top of a violin’s peg head.
I never paid much attention to fiddleheads until more recently while exploring the outdoors. It was a beautiful spring day and my husband and I were out for a drive enjoying what we love the most, the outdoors. With my camera in hand, I was focused on capturing some wildlife photography in Alaska when I crossed paths with some fresh lady fiddlehead ferns, and every year since have geared up to harvest.
Fiddleheads, also known as fiddles or fronds, have several different species that are edible with two of the most popular being the ostrich fern, also known as Matteuccia struthiopteris, and the lady fern, also known as Athyrium filix-femina.
Fiddles are known widely as one of the most desired spring edibles by gatherers. Although these are not something you will be able to purchase and enjoy at your local grocery store, rather you’ll have to harvest in the wild or purchase at farmers’ markets, making them much more luxurious.
Prior to setting out and harvesting fiddleheads at your heart’s desire, it is important you check with your local wildlife agency to inquire about the local regulations and purchase any permits that may be needed. Many areas allow for certain amounts to be harvested for personal use, while some wilderness areas are limited, and a commercial permit is required if you intend to sell your harvests. Depending on your location, requirements with your local agency may be much different than other areas or states.
While identification can be overwhelming, don’t let this deter you from getting out and harvesting a cluster of fiddles. As with all wild harvests, it is important to pay attention to the details to avoid the risk of harvesting plants that should not be eaten. Most ferns grow fiddleheads, so identification of the correct fern fiddlehead is very important.
Ostrich Fern: Identified by a “U” shaped stem on the underneath and does not have a solid stem. The fern stem is smooth and is not fuzzy or “hairy.” Their fronds grow direct out of the middle of the plant. Their fiddleheads are usually about an inch in diameter. They have brownish-red paper-like covering on the uncoiled fern. Ostrich ferns often cluster in groups of 4 to 12. Ostrich ferns are said to be the safest to harvest and eat. Found in the Northern parts of North America to include Canada and Alaska. Ostrich ferns like to be in the shade and can be found in moist bottomlands, woodsy areas, and streambanks. They tend to like grounds that are high in nutrients.
Lady Fern: Stems are slightly grooved and not solid. They are green to straw-colored and darker at the base. They have brownish-red paper-like covering on the uncoiled fern as well. They have light to dark brown scales scattered on the lower stem. Found in the western states of North America, Canada, and Alaska. Lady fern grows best in rich, moist, neutral to acidic soil in partial to full shade. Plants in full sun will not do well unless the soil is constantly wet. They also can be found in the same environment as the ostrich fern as well as meadows and up above timberlines.
When harvesting fiddleheads it is very important that the heads be tightly coiled. It is also said the tighter the coil, the tastier they will be. If they are uncoiled, you do not want to eat as these mature ferns are toxic! The ferns with a white coating are a different species, these too should not be eaten and are toxic.
Ferns begin to produce their young tightly coiled fronds in late April and can be found through June depending on your location and environment. Once the fiddleheads begin to uncoil, harvesting for the year should be suspended. They tend to grow quickly, meaning their harvest season is short. So get out and enjoy it while you can!
Snapping off the fiddlehead from the fern with fingers tends to be the easier and most common way to harvest or you can use a knife to cut them off. Gathering as much of the stem as possible is worth it as they are tasty and just as edible as the coil. It is important to not collect more than half the fiddleheads from an individual fern root as the result could mean killing the fern. It’s recommended when harvested, to place in a bucket, basket or bag and keep them cool.
Disclaimer: Keep in mind this is a hunting guide to finding fiddleheads and not a field guide for them. If you have any doubt about a fiddlehead and being able to correctly identify it, DO NOT keep it! Don’t use this article solely to identify your harvest if you are not familiar with fiddleheads.