Harvesting fiddleheads—the young tips of the ostrich fern—is an early spring tradition that dates back centuries. Discover where fiddleheads grow, what they taste like, and a couple of fiddlehead recipes. Plus, learn about magical fern folklore, history, and healing powers!
What Are Fiddleheads?
In April, young ferns sprout from wet soil here, appearing bright green against the decaying leaves. These are 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.
Where Do Fiddleheads Grow?
The fiddleheads of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) are the most popular for foraging, as they are the tastiest (and edible). You’ll find them in central and eastern U.S. and Canada near streams and moist, forested areas. Many Native American tribes would traditionally harvest fiddleheads, and these days they are even commercially harvested in the spring.
If fiddleheads can’t be foraged in your area, you may be able to find them in green grocers, speciality food shops, or at farmers’ markets. They’re only available fresh or a few weeks in springtime, but they’re also sold frozen and canned.
When Are Fiddleheads Harvested?
Fiddleheads are harvested in the spring as they emerge from the fern crown. They must be picked before the fronds open in order to be edible.
Each ostrich fern plant will produce several tops that turn into fronds. They are best harvested at about 2 to 6 inches tall when a portion of the tasty stem can be harvested, but while the fiddlehead is still tightly curled. Fiddleheads should only be harvested from healthy crowns that can sustain picking. It’s best to take only half the tops from each plant (at most) so that the ferns can continue growing. As with wild ramps, it’s important not to overharvest and deplete our natural resources!
CAUTION: Most fern species are toxic to humans, so it’s very important that you can identify the fiddleheads of the ostrich fern if you plan to forage for fiddleheads yourself. Beware of lookalikes! Other ferns can cause nausea, vomiting, and other unpleasant effects if ingested.
Have you ever eaten fiddleheads? Many readers say they taste like a cross between asparagus, baby spinach, and artichoke. They have 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.
Many people cook the young fiddleheads for an asparagus-like treat. They need to be cooked thoroughly before eating. Although the Ostrich fern is not known to be 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 a couple more fiddlehead recipes from the Almanac archives:
Fiddleheads and 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. 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.
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.
Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) grow in the the wild in cool, moist shade beside streams and rivers. However, these native perennials are also easy to grow in your landscape if you have moist soil and a shady area. They provide an elegant ground cover and hardy in Zones 3 to 8.
Though most ferns are 1 to 3 feet wide, the ostrich fern can grow up to six feet tall! They form large colonies and are also long-lived. Enjoy watching the springtime fiddleheads slowly unfurl into lacy, bright green fronds.
Plant in the spring as bare-root plants in well-drained soil with added organic matter. They prefer shade and acidic soils with a pH of 4 to 7. Fertilizing should only 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. That’s it!Image Ostrich fern courtesy of Holland Bulb Farms.