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Harvesting Fiddleheads on Woodlots

One of the signs that spring has finally arrived is the melting of snow and the emerging green growth that begins to poke through the forest floor. The ostrich fern Matteuccia struthiopteris is one of spring’s early risers. Named after the Ancient Greek struthio meaning ostrich and pterion meaning wing, the common and scientific names refer to the large, feather-like shape of the fern. The curled crosiers that emerge in the spring are fittingly called fiddleheads.

fiddleheads2Ostrich fern sterile fronds.
Photo credit Amadej Trnkoczy CC BY NC SA 2.0
Found throughout the northern hemisphere and in all Canadian provinces, fiddleheads have been a staple spring vegetable in the Maritimes for hundreds of years and are gaining in popularity across North America. There are even commercial fiddlehead farms popping up in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. Harvesting ostrich ferns or planting new ferns on your woodlot can be a great source of income in the spring as fiddleheads can sell $5 to $15 per pound.

Identification

Ostrich ferns have two types of fronds: sterile fronds (that grow up to 1.5 metres) and fertile spore-producing fronds (30 to 50 centimetres tall) that emerge weeks after fiddleheads. Fertile fronds turn brown and have been observed still standing after a year. Looking for the brown, fertile frond during winter months is a great way to easily locate existing ostrich ferns so that you are ready to pick the fiddleheads when they come into season. The spores produced from the fertile frond can create new plants, but more often stolons spread underground to establish new ferns.

Fiddleheads can be identified by a few unique characteristics that are only exhibited by ostrich ferns. The skin is smooth with a deep green colour and there is a U-shaped groove in the stem that looks similar to the groove in celery. Fiddleheads emerge, covered in a papery-brown chaff, from a black clump called a crown.

Ostrich ferns can be confused with other similar ferns such as the bracken fern Pteridium aquilinum. Although the ferns are similar in appearance, it is easy to distinguish between the two. First, ostrich ferns usually have 6–8 fronds emerging from a single crown, while bracken ferns only have a single frond. The ostrich frond has a single-stemmed, feather-like appearance, while the bracken frond divides into three branches that are more triangular in appearance. In contrast, the bracken fiddlehead has a fuzzy stem and lacks the U-shaped groove. It is important to be able to identify ferns down to species because some species, like the bracken fern, are known to be carcinogenic.

Location

fiddleheads3Ostrich fern fertile frond.
Photo credit Lahvak CC BY NC SA 2.0
Ostrich ferns can be found in a variety of locations, but are most commonly found under high hardwood canopies such as maple or ash trees, near rivers or streambeds. They prefer little mid- or understory cover with adequate drainage and moisture. Although they are found near water, they do not like excessive moisture where they are constantly wet. Ostrich ferns grow best in shade or dappled light with 30–40% light. Ostrich ferns are usually found in soils that have moderate amounts of organic matter, a pH of 5–7, in sandy or silt loams, with not too much clay.

Harvesting

Fiddleheads are best picked from late April to early June, from the time they emerge until the stem is 15 cm tall. Fiddleheads should only be picked while still tightly coiled, and the short stem can be eaten as well. When harvesting fiddleheads it is recommended to take less than half from any one crown to ensure a sustainable harvest. Harvesting more than half of the fiddleheads from a single crown can harm or even kill the plant. If there are fewer than four fiddleheads on a crown, the fern is either too young or stunted, and should not be harvested. Harvesting can be done by snapping the fiddleheads or cutting with a knife, but care should be taken when cutting not to damage any of the remaining fiddleheads. To remove the papery covering it is best to rub it off with your hands or use a fan to winnow the covering while lightly tossing the fiddleheads. Clean containers should be used to collect fiddleheads and only potable water should be used during cleaning. Do not use water from rivers or streams. Refrigerate as soon as possible to ensure freshness.

Storage

fiddleheads4Ostrich fern fiddleheads emerging from crown.
Photo credit Will Marshall CC BY NC SA 2.0
Fiddleheads can be refrigerated for approximately two weeks. Since the season is just a few weeks long, many people freeze fiddleheads to enjoy them year-round. When freezing fiddleheads a simple blanching process will suffice. Boil cleaned fiddleheads for two minutes, pour out leftover water, then cool fiddleheads in cold ice water. Remove from water, dry, and then package the fiddleheads in freezer or vacuum-sealed bags. Fiddleheads can be stored in the freezer for up to one year. When fiddleheads are to be used, follow the cooking instructions below to complete the cooking process.

Cooking

Although there have been cases of food poisoning from eating raw fiddleheads, the exact cause of illness is still unknown. Therefore, Health Canada has released specific guidelines for proper handling and cooking of fiddleheads.

There are two ways that Health Canada recommends cooking fiddleheads: boiling or steaming. To boil fiddleheads, fill a pot with a generous amount of water and bring to a boil; the water can be lightly salted if you so choose. Add fiddleheads then bring the water back to a boil and cook for 15 minutes. Discard leftover water.

fiddleheads5Bracken fern fiddlehead.
Photo credit Colin Avison CC BY NC ND 2.0
To steam fiddleheads, bring water to a boil in the bottom of saucepan. Using a steam basket add the fiddleheads and steam for 10 to 12 minutes until tender. Discard leftover water. Do not sauté, stir fry or microwave fiddleheads. If a recipe calls for such cooking methods, only do so after boiling or steaming.

Fiddleheads can be added to almost any recipe that calls for vegetables. A common way to eat fiddleheads is to add butter, salt, pepper, lemon juice and garlic.

References for further learning:

NorCliff Farms Inc. is one of the largest fiddlehead farms in North America and has many recipes for fiddleheads.

University of Maine fiddlehead facts that include educational videos and nutritional information.

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