Fiddleheads are a sign of spring here in Maine. Although they are often foraged in the wild, we can also find them at the supermarket. Unlike other vegetables, however, they are only available at this time of year. They are a local phenomenon, and we love the local-ness and the fresh, sign-of-spring flavor. An annual delicacy.
|Ostrich fern in the shade of a Striped Maple|
Fiddleheads are the as yet unfurled fronds of the ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris. They are found in the woods and typically along rivers and streams. It takes a small amount of knowledge to identify them. It's important to know exactly what to look for, and then one hopes to find enough for a dinner. There are many kinds of ferns, but among them, only the ostrich fern is considered edible.
In scouting for them early in spring, look for a brown colored bump on the ground. These are really hard to spot because they blend in. As the fern grows you will see a green, hairless stem with a furled top of delicate-looking frilly little leaves. The ferns' stem is hollowed on the underside. Other types of ferns may have stems that are covered with a fuzzy white substance, or are red, or are hairy looking, or are rounded without being hollowed. There is a facebook page for fiddleheads, click here.
The nice thing about this fern is that you can grow them. Here, we have two patches started. The ostrich fern prefers a shady spot and moist soil although one of our patches is in full sun and soil that dries out. The other patch is next to the trunk of a striped maple tree, and the ground is not especially moist there either.
These patches were started a couple years ago and we are still waiting to be able to pick some. This may take several years. A patch spreads as ferns send out runners with a new fern starting from the end of each of them. Several new ferns pop up each year, and we are waiting for the patches to colonize thickly enough that picking some won't deplete the patch.
We ordered the fern plants from the Fedco tree catalog. Other sources may offer this fern, google search “ostrich fern,” then make sure the scientific name is the same.
Harvest fiddleheads while they are still a tight spiral near to the ground. If the spiral has unfurled, it is too late. To eat them, clean by swishing in several changes of cold water, and remove any brown bits. Steam for about five minutes, then saute in butter and garlic. -jmm