I find ferns and fiddleheads fascinating (say that five times!). Harvesting the young tips of the ostrich fern is a spring tradition that has its roots in Native American times. As a family, ferns are truly ancient—growing BEFORE dinosaurs walked the Earth! Learn more about magical fern folklore, history, healing, and all about the young ferns called fiddleheads!
What Are Fiddleheads?
In April, young ferns sprout from wet soil here, appearing bright green against the decaying leaves. These are the fiddleheads, so-called because the very tops—furled tight when young—look like the tuning end of a fiddle. Similar in looks (and taste) to asparagus, fiddleheads are usually only available for a few weeks in the spring before the fern leaves unravel.
The fiddleheads of the Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) are the most popular for foraging, as they are the tastiest. You’ll find them in central and eastern U.S. and Canada near streams and moist, forested areas. Many Native American tribes would harvest fiddleheads, and they are even commercially harvested in the spring.
Some other varieties of ferns are also edible as fiddleheads, such as western sword fern, bracken fern, and lady fern. All must be cooked before consuming.
Photo: “Ostrich Fern/ Fiddleheads” by Almanac reader Diane Peck
Cooking With Fiddleheads
Have you ever eaten fiddleheads? Many readers say it tastes like a cross between asparagus, baby spinach, and artichoke. It has a grassy, spring-y flavor with a touch of nuttiness. Fiddleheads are a very healthy green tonic, packed with antioxidants, omega acids, iron, and fiber.
Caution: Some ferns are toxic so it’s very important that you can identify the fiddleheads of the Ostrich fern. Fiddleheads must be picked before the fronds open to be edible. Each fern plant will produce several tops that turn into fronds. It’s best to take only half the tops per plant so they grow back. If you aren’t clear on how to forage, visit your local green grocer. They’re only available fresh or a few weeks in springtime, but they’re also sold frozen and canned.
Many people in this area cook the young fiddleheads for an asparagus-like treat. They need to be cooked thoroughly before eating. Although the Ostrich fern is not identified as toxic, it’s a safe precaution. Remove the husk, wash three times in cold water, and then either boil for 15 minutes or steam lightly in a steam basket for 10 to 12 minutes, just until tender crisp.
Here are some excellent fiddlehead recipes from the Almanac archives:
A Little Fern History
Ferns first show up in fossil records from a time over 100 million years BEFORE dinosaurs walked the Earth. In fact, ferns grew before flowering plants existed. There are thousands of species from those which are a few inches tall to others which resemble trees.
Long ago, people couldn’t explain how ferns reproduced since they lack flowers or seeds. Fern seeds were thought to make one invisible!
Today we know that ferns truly don’t have flowers or seeds. How do they reproduce? They have “spores.” With sunlight and photosynthesis, the spores grow into what is called gametes which are able to fertilize the sperm and start to move it into the fern plant. This is completely different than anything that happens with any other sort of flower! No wonder people were confused.
It was this mystery of the non-flowering fern that led to folklore about mystical flowers as seeds.
Midsummer Eve Lore
During the Middle Ages, ferns were thought to flower and produce seed only once a year—at midnight on St. John’s Eve (June 23) prior Midsummer’s Day. Traditionally, this was a celebration accompanying the summer solstice.
- Since the seeds couldn’t be seen, they were believed to be invisible. According to lore, they could only be found once a year on St. John’s Eve (June 23), also called Midsummer Eve. The possessor of these “seeds” could understand the language of birds, find buried treasure, and have the strength of forty men.
- This folklore is also intertwined with Midsummer Day (June 24); bathing in the dew on this morning was said to bring youthful glow and healing.
Ferns for Healing
Historically, ferns have been an important source of medicine for various ailments, especially for ancient tribes.
- The spores on the underside of the fern provide relief to the stinging nettle (which is often nearby).
When boiled in oil or fat, Ophioglossum vulgatum has been used for wounds and to reduce inflammation.
A poultice or lotion made from the roots of Botrychium. virginianum has been applied to snakebites, bruises, cuts and sores in the Himalayas.
The powdered rhizomes of Adiantum lunulatum has been used as an antidote to snakebite in India.
Extract of fresh leaves of Nephrolepis cordifolia has been used to stop bleeding of cuts and help in blood coagulation.
The paste of the leaf of O. reticulatum has been applied to the forehead to get rid of headache.
Filtered water extract of rhizome of Abacopteris multilineata has been used for stomach pains.
A beautiful fern in the fern garden at Como Park in Minneapolis. Credit: Jasanna Czellar
The ancient fern has a history rich in symbolism. As mentioned above, ferns were seen as good luck, often for new lovers. The fern symbolizes eternal youth.
- To the indigenous Maori of New Zealand, the fern represented new life and new beginnings.
- To the Japanese, the fern symbolizes family and the hope for future generations.
- According to Victorians, the fern symbolized humility and sincerity. Click to see the meaning of plants and flowers.
Growing Ferns Indoors and Outdoors
People love ferns, whether they grow them in their yard or as houseplants. They have graceful fronds, lush green color, grow well in low light, and even clean the air!
- The most common houseplant is a “Boston Fern.” Like most ferns, the plant prefers bright indirect or filtered sunlight with day temperatures of 68 to 72 °F and night temperatures of 50 to 55 °F. The biggest issue is providing high humidity (50 to 80%) so keep the soil moist and never let them dry out. It helps to mist the leaves. Place near kitchens and bathrooms for higher humidity or set on a tray of wet pebbles. Fertilize lightly once a month from April through September. Liquid houseplant fertilizers should be applied at about one-half the recommended rate. Ferns will leaf scorch when fertilized too heavily. In the winter, reduce watering since the plant is dormant and overwatering can lead to root rot. Do not fertilize ferns during the winter.
Note: The fern’s root system can occupy up to three quarters of the solid space in the pot without harm, and this plant does not like to be repotted. Remember that ferns produce spores on the underside of the leaves. Do not mistake these dark brown or black spots for insect or disease damage.
Photo: Boston Fern. Indoors, ferns cleans the air, lessening air pollutants!
Outdoors, ferns are perfect for shade gardens, adding elegance, rich green hues, and interesting texture. Ferms are one of the more deer-resistant plants, too. Most ferns are 1 to 3 feet wide. (Ostrich ferns can grow to six feet). They prefer shade, well-drained soil with added organic matter, and acidic soils with a pH of 4 to 7. Fertilizing should be done in spring, just after new growth has begun. Ferns are very sensitive to fertilizing so use a slow release fertilizer, such as Osmocote 14-14-14. As ferns in nature normally grow in woodland areas, they appreciate some leaf mulch in the spring and fall.
There are many fern varieties to add texture to your shade garden! Here are a few varieties that tend to do well in the landscape.
- Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) are perennials which are easy to grow, happy in moist or wet soil that is slightly acidic. Hardy in Zones 2 to 7.
- Japanese Painted Fern (Athyriumniponicum ‘Pictum’) are deciduous perenntials that adds some color with soft fronds that are silvery-gray, green and burgundy on dark purple stems. It grows 10 to 15 inches tall. Hardy in Zones 4 to 8.
- Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) has cinnamon-colored fronds that grow in their centers, and big, green fronds surrounding them, adding color and texture to shady spots. They’ll often grow in both sun and shade. Hardy in Zones 4 to 8.
- Autumn Fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) is an evergreen fern with fronds of coppery-pink in spring which turn green in summer and then bronze in autumn. Grow in light to full shade. Hardy in Zones 5 to 9.
Do you have ferns in your area or do you grow ferns? Please share your thoughts on ferns—and folklore!