Almost everyone has heard of “fiddlehead ferns,” a gourmet wild vegetable found across much of North America in the springtime. Few wild edibles are so well known, so convenient and tasty, or so widely available. Yet unfortunately, few of them are surrounded by so much confusion. Many people mistakenly believe that all fern fiddleheads are edible. Because of this misconception, stories of people getting sick from fiddleheads are common, and this has caused many to steer clear of these wildlings. All of this confusion is unnecessary, for learning to identify the edible species of fiddleheads is rather easy – and the reward is a lifetime of free and delicious vegetables.
There are three main species of edible ferns in North America: ostrich fern Matteucia struthiopteris, lady fern Athyrium filix-femina, and bracken fern Pteridium aquilinum. All of them are widespread and, in certain areas, abundant. For each of these species the part gathered and eaten is the young, tender shoot (called fiddleheads due to the curled tips, which resemble the top of a fiddle) found in spring and early summer. The mature fronds of all of these ferns should not be eaten.
When people say “fiddlehead fern” 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. These magnificent ferns grow mostly in shady river bottoms, where often they cover many acres of ground, but they are also occasionally found in rich hardwood forests. Ostrich fern ranges from Newfoundland to Alaska and British Colombia, south to northern California, the Midwest, and the Southern Appalachians. It is abundant in the upper Great Lakes, the Northeast, and much of southern Canada.
Ostrich ferns grow from three to six feet tall. The five to nine fronds (leaves) of each plant are arranged in a rosette forming a large funnel. The fronds emanate from a large rootstock or rhizome, which looks like a scaly clump or mound. Ostrich ferns bear their spores on separate, brown fronds which are smaller than the others and stand erect in the middle of the cluster. These are often collected for dried flower arrangements.
Of course, you’re looking for fiddleheads, not full-grown fronds. The fiddlehead stalks are smooth and naked of any scales or wool, but the coiled tops are full of brown papery flakes. The top side of the stalk (or, the part facing the center of the rosette) has a deep, U-shaped trough running its entire length – this is an important feature to look for.
Gather the fiddleheads in mid to late spring; they’ll be too old by the time the leaves are fully formed on the sugar maples and oaks. Harvest them when they are eight to twenty inches tall – as long as they are still tender and the leafy portion of the frond is not yet unfurled. Usually the bottom quarter or so of the stalk is too tough to eat; in time you’ll get the hang of knowing where to break them off. You don’t have to cut the fiddleheads; when bent they should snap off cleanly.
Many people only collect the tightly coiled tops of the fiddleheads, leaving behind the juicy stalk which constitutes the greater part of the shoot. I have never been able to figure out why this is done – there is no gustatory, culinary, or practical reason for it. In fact, I greatly prefer both the flavor and the texture of the stalks to that of the coiled leafy tips. Your fiddlehead patch will yield a lot more good food if you harvest the whole vegetable.
Ostrich fern is easy to gather in great quantities and for that reason has long been a popular green to store up for the winter by canning, a tradition that I still carry on. I just open a jar at my convenience and use it in a soup or casserole. But canned fiddleheads are not half as good as the fresh vegetables. Simply boiled or steamed and served with butter like asparagus they are superb. Ostrich fern shoots are crisp and sweet when raw and make a pleasant addition to salads or can be just nibbled on a hike through the woods.
A Note on Cinnamon and Interrupted Ferns
Cinnamon fern Osmundea cinnamomea is common on sandy soil in partial shade where the water table is close to the surface. Interrupted fern Osmundea claytonia is abundant in wooded areas across much of the range of ostrich fern and likes partial shade on rich, moist to mucky soil. In the fiddlehead stage, these two large rosette ferns are often confused with ostrich fern. Both can be easily discriminated by the presence of wool covering the fiddleheads and by the absence of the U-shaped groove running the length of the stalk.
Many people believe that one or both of these ferns are the “true” edible fiddlehead ferns. Thousands of people collect and eat these ferns every year despite the fact that they are mildly toxic. I have, on numerous occasions, seen published photographs of interrupted ferns mislabeled as one of the edible species.
Undoubtedly this misunderstanding is what accounts for most of the sickness associated with eating fiddleheads.
The problem is that these ferns are only mildly toxic, and their bitter taste (which I find detestable) is apparently not repulsive to everyone. It is entirely possible to nibble only one or two raw, or to throw a handful of the chopped-up stalks into split-pea soup, and not feel sick. However, the consumption of a large serving of cooked cinnamon or interrupted fern fiddleheads, or just a moderate serving when raw, can result in nausea, dizziness, lethargy, and headache. Do not eat them.
The lady fern is found scattered in moist conifer and deciduous forests, where it tolerates a high degree of shade. This fern, commonly used in landscaping, ranges from coast to coast and is abundant in the northern U.S. and much of Canada. Its rosettes usually consist of three to seven fronds which rise from two to three and a half feet above the forest floor. This species also exhibits a groove running down the top of its stalk, only it is proportionately smaller than that of the ostrich fern. The spores of lady fern are borne on the underside of the frond rather than on a separate one like those of ostrich fern are.
The tips of lady fern fiddleheads are not coiled as tightly as those of ostrich, cinnamon, or interrupted fern. The stalk has a sparse coating of dark-brown, curled-up, papery scales which look like short, thick, hairs. Lady fern fiddleheads are much thinner than those of ostrich fern and are also a lighter green.
Lady fern tastes much like ostrich fern, only with an added faint bitterness. It can be used similarly in cooking, but it is advisable to rub off the “hairs,” since their texture is rather unpleasant. I enjoy lady fern fiddleheads but find them les preferable to those of ostrich fern due to the flavor, smaller size, and somewhat annoying hairs.
This amazing species is probably the most abundant and widespread wild plant on Earth. In many parts of North America bracken fern carpets thousands upon thousands of acres. Commonly just called “bracken,” this unusual fern inhabits dry, sunny, and often infertile habitats such as pine barrens, open woodlands, young forests, cutovers, abandoned fields, and burned areas. It is found across the northern United States and Canada, extending southward at higher elevations.
Unlike the other two ferns discussed, bracken does not grow in rosettes. Bracken stems grow singly, rising straight up from the ground with no branching and little taper for one to five feet – then the stalks suddenly split into three main forks, forming a large, roughly triangular frond that grows almost parallel to the ground. Bracken stalks are connected by a network of thin rhizomes found a few inches underground, and they often form very large colonies.
Bracken fiddleheads are not coiled up the way those of ostrich fern are; the top may or may not droop down or curl up slightly, and the three main forks are each coiled up next to one another. These shoots are also sometimes called croziers. A distinctive feature of bracken is two black dots on the fiddlehead where the main branches fork; on warm days ants will be seen feeding on a substance produced by these dark spots. Bracken shoots are covered with a layer of short, rusty-colored fuzz which can easily be rubbed off before consumption. These fiddleheads should be collected when they are eight inches to two feet tall – as long as the forks are still unfurled and the stems snap easily. The lower portion will generally be too tough to eat, especially on the taller stalks. The season of harvest for these fiddleheads is long, as a few shoots will come up into midsummer.
Bracken shoots are a traditional food in Japan, Korea, and parts of China, and today they are still regularly eaten by many millions of people in those countries. The plant was also eaten extensively by native people in New Zealand and North America. The cooked shoots are excellent in soups, pasta, casseroles, and many oriental dishes. (They are even available canned in many Asian or gourmet food stores.) Every year I store some for the winter by canning or sun-drying, as they are conveniently available in copious quantities. It is recommended that bracken fern not be eaten raw in significant quantities.
Bracken fern contains a chemical, ptaquiloside, that is known to be carcinogenic to mammals in high doses. The American Cancer Society places it in the same risk category as coffee and sassafras. This doesn’t mean that if you eat bracken you’ll die of cancer; many things that we commonly eat contain carcinogenic chemicals, such as char-broiled meat, potato chips, and all smoked foods. I still occasionally eat bracken fiddleheads.
In some areas ostrich fern has been seriously overharvested by market collectors. Although they are prolific and vigorous, any of these ferns can be over collected due to carelessness. For lady and ostrich ferns, collect only 2-5 shoots per rosette, and never more than once per season. For bracken fern, never pick more than 50 % of the stems in an area, and try to spread out your impact.
Millions of people across North America have convenient access to one or more of these fern species. They are easy to identify, a cinch to cook, a joy to gather, and free for the taking. This spring, why not give them a try?