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PHOTO: Christian Bucad/Flickr
Although they’re only in season for a few weeks of the year, fiddlehead ferns are a gourmet delight. These tightly coiled, fun vegetables are plucked from a few different species of ferns in the spring. Typically a foraged crop, fiddleheads have become such a popular seasonal ingredient among chefs and other foodies that growing them on a commercial basis has become a sound investment.
The Right Frond
“Fiddleheads are an extremely easy-to-establish perennial crop,” says Ellen Zachos, foraging expert at BackyardForager.com and author of Backyard Foraging: 65 familiar plants you didn’t know you could eat (2013). “The species of fern most commonly grown for its edible fiddleheads is not very difficult to grow.”
The species Zachos is referring to is the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). Although there are other species of ferns fiddleheads, including the lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) and the bracken/hay-scented fern (Pteridium aquilinum), these ferns contain toxic compounds, including carcinogens, that could make people sick if the fiddlehead isn’t cooked properly, which is a risk many farmers rightly don’t want to take.
“Ostrich ferns are the safest bet,” Zachos says. “They’re fairly easy to identify in the wild for people who want to forage for fiddleheads on their own land, but they’re also a plantable commercial crop. However, to be on the safe side, this species really should be steamed or boiled for 10 to 12 minutes before eating, too. I know plenty of people who eat raw ostrich fiddleheads, or steam them for just two to three minutes, but a longer cooking time is better.”
The earthy flavor of fiddleheads is often described as a mixture of asparagus, spinach and rapini, and the texture is green bean-like. Fiddleheads can be pan-fried, sautéed or added to anything from quiche to pasta, and they can even be pickled.
Of course, the key to success with ostrich fiddleheads is proper identification. They can be distinguished by a few key features:
- The fiddleheads emerge in the spring from a mound-like rhizome that sticks out of the soil surface. Often the previous year’s brown, stiff, feather-shaped, reproductive fronds will still be present. They stick straight up out of the plant’s center.
- The young, still-coiled fiddleheads are covered with tan, papery scales for a few days after their emergence. These scales easily flake off with a brush of a finger. If the fiddleheads are covered with a wool-like covering, they are not the correct species.
- Upon careful inspection, the stalks of ostrich fern fiddleheads have a U-shaped groove running along their entire length, just like a stalk of celery does. This groove is on the top side of the fiddlehead, facing the plant’s center.
If you plan to forage for fiddleheads in the wild, do so only with the permission of the property owner, and don’t harvest any more than half of the emerging fronds from any one plant. “The important thing is to leave enough fiddleheads behind to photosynthesize and keep the plant healthy,” Zachos says. “You don’t want to overforage these ferns.”
Ostrich ferns are native to North America. They’re hardy from USDA zones 3 through 7 and are found across the northern part of the United States and most of Canada. Growing in the wild, ostrich ferns are most commonly found in deciduous woods, often in a shady site that is moist but well-draining.
When growing fiddleheads for commercial purposes, select a site as close as possible to the wild conditions in which these plants thrive. Although ostrich ferns will grow in full sun, the fronds will brown during hot summer weather, and they’ll require regular supplemental irrigation. In shady conditions, however, they require far less care.
To establish a colony of ostrich ferns, Zachos suggests starting with plugs.
“I started my own ferns from plugs a few years ago because they’re so inexpensive,” she says. “It takes a few years to get established, but it’s far less expensive than starting with large plants. From plug-sized to harvest is two to three years, just like with asparagus.”
Fiddlehead ferns spread quickly by underground rhizomes, so they can be divided and transplanted every few years to help increase the size of the colony.
Plants can be purchased as plugs from online nurseries (just search “ostrich fern” and “nursery”) and as larger plants from local nurseries, where they’re often sold as ornamentals.
“Don’t ever dig up ostrich ferns from the wild; instead, buy them from a grower,” Zachos cautions. “Leave the wild population intact.”
Making The Harvest
The harvest window for fiddleheads is very short, only two to three weeks. “Exactly when that time is will depend on the climate and the weather,” Zachos says. “In Maine, they may be ready to pick in May, but in North Carolina, it could be several weeks before that.”
Keep a close eye on the plants when spring temperatures warm because once the fronds begin to emerge, the plants grow very quickly—sometimes a few inches a day.
When the fronds reach a height of 3 or 4 inches, and while they are still tightly coiled, use a pair of sharp pruners to snip no more than half of the fronds from any one plant.
“I usually give myself 2 inches of stem below the actual fiddlehead to make it a little easier to harvest them,” Zachos says. You can also harvest fiddleheads by snapping them off at the base of the stem, though Zachos’ experience tells her it’s easier to cut than to snap.
Zachos enjoys fiddleheads every spring. “Not only because they’re delicious and versatile,” she says, “but because they mark the beginning of the growing season, a time filled with wild greens and unique flavors.”
Selling & Storing Fiddlehead Ferns
After the harvest is complete, gently brush off the brown, papery scales covering the fiddleheads with your fingers. Fiddleheads can be stored for five to seven days in a plastic bag under refrigeration, or they can be delivered immediately to your market stand, CSA customers or interested chefs.
Fiddleheads fetch a hefty price, depending on how in-demand they are. Where harvested fiddleheads are rare, they might come with a price tag of $10 to $15 per pound. In parts of New England, where they’re far more common, they may bring half that price.
“A lot of people have heard that you can eat fiddleheads, but not many people actually have,” says foraging expert Ellen Zachos. “If your farmers market rules allow, have cooked samples for people to taste. Whether it’s pickled fiddleheads or a combo of goat cheese and steamed fiddlehead on a cracker, it will give people a chance to fall in love with this delicious spring vegetable.”
If you plan to distribute fiddleheads in your CSA shares, include preparation instructions and a few recipes. Also, be prepared to answer lots of questions at the market table; fiddleheads often garner a great amount of attention. They especially pique the curiosity of shoppers looking to try something new in the kitchen.