Foraging for Fiddleheads {Well, Sort Of}

After a long winter, we delight in those emerging specks of green that mark the start of the growing season. The air might still carry a chill, but that doesn’t deter us from heading to the farmer’s market to catch the first glimpses of fresh, local produce. Among the baskets of root vegetables and early spring herbs, you’ll often find fiddleheads, the coiled fronds of the ostrich fern {Matteuccia struthiopteris}. In the ground, these deep-green curled stems will later unfurl into tall ferns ranging from two to even six feet in height, but in this early stage, they resemble the neck of their namesake; the fiddle.

For Our Body

As with many spring greens, fiddleheads offer much-needed nutrients after a long winter. To start, they’re a great source of vitamins A and C {4,052 IU and 2.6 mg per half cup, raw, respectively}. They also contain potassium and manganese, which help with everything from heart function to bone strength. Vegetarians can look to fiddleheads as a meat-free source of omega-3 fatty acids, and these combined with fern’s antioxidants help to modulate the body’s immune response, helpful in autoimmune disease. Finally, fiddleheads offer more than 30 percent of your daily requirements of niacin {vitamin B3}, which raises HDL {good} and lower LDL {bad} cholesterol. Bonus; They’re low-calorie and fat-free.

Growing Fiddleheads

Since they grow naturally in shaded areas, ostrich ferns make a great addition to those spots in the garden where the sun does not seem to shine. You’ll need to replicate the soil conditions of the forest floor, which means moist, nitrogen-rich soil. Applying peat and doses of compost will help get you there. Ferns fare best in warm, not hot, temperatures {between 73 degrees F- 86 degrees F} in USDA Hardiness Zones 3-7. They do not love drought so you will need to keep them watered, but not saturated.

Ferns grow from spores, not seeds, which makes them a bit trickier to plant. You can find plenty of tutorials online { offers instructions}, or you can simply order them from a local grower, which will provide them in root form.

If you do wish to harvest ostrich ferns from the wild, make sure you have permission from the landowner or protected area, and be confident that you can identify them, as not all ferns are edible. {Bracken ferns, for instance, contain carcinogenic compounds.} Ostrich ferns usually grow in clusters, starting in late – April. Pick them when they reach about two inches tall.

Keep Ostrich Ferns Fresh

At the grocers or farmer’s market, look for fiddleheads that have a bright-green color {not yellowing}, with firm, tight coils. Fiddleheads are best used quickly, but if you need to store them, wrap them tightly and store in the fridge for only two or three days.

How to Eat Fiddleheads

Start by removing the brown, papery skin {if it’s still attached}. Since they dwell so close to the dirt, you need to clean them thoroughly. Place them in a colander and spray them with cold water. Next, fill a bowl with clean, cold water and let the fiddleheads soak for a few minutes to remove any remaining dirt and scales.

Fiddleheads have the potential to cause foodborne illness, so it’s imperative to cook them properly. You can boil them in lightly salted water for 10-15 minutes or steam them, covered, for 10-20 minutes. According to the University of Utah Cooperative Extension, for recipes that call for further cooking, such as stir-fries, you should still boil or steam them beforehand.

Most chefs recommend preparing them as you would asparagus: sauteed in olive oil with some garlic, lemon, and vinegar.

3 thoughts on “Foraging for Fiddleheads {Well, Sort Of}

  1. Goodness! I just mentioned the riparian area that we needed to cut down the thicket of redtwig dogwood in! It was too much. The fiddleheads are just starting to unfurl. they are quite numerous! The old fronds should be cut down, but they deteriorate so fast that we probably will not bother. We know them as ostrich ferns, but I am not sure if they really are. They grow wild all over the Santa Cruz Mountains.

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