Foraging for Fiddleheads: How To Identify, Harvest, Cook & Preserve Ostrich fern

In early spring foragers across the Northern Hemisphere head out to their favourite spots to collect the highly revered delicacy known as’fiddleheads’.

Named for its spiralled shape resembling the scroll of a violin, fiddleheads are the curled, edible shoots of the Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) – struthio meaning ostrich and pterion meaning wing.

They are only available for a short window of time in the spring as the young fern is unfurling from the ground. I find their flavour to be something between asparagus and spinach.

Nutrition

Fiddle heads contain a high-quality plant nutrition profile with beneficial antioxidants, vitamins and essential fatty acids. They are high in vitamin-A and carotenes, natural polyphenolic flavonoid compounds such as α and ß-carotenes. High in vitamin C, minerals and electrolytes, especially potassium, iron, manganese, and copper plus some of the valuable B-complex group of vitamins such as niacin, riboflavin, and thiamin. source

Finding Fiddleheads

Ostrich Ferns like to grow in shaded areas. They can be found in a variety of locations but the best areas to search are under high hardwood canopies close to the banks of rivers, in swampy areas and near streams.

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Grove of Ostrich Ferns

Our foraging site

We enjoyed collecting our fiddle heads along the banks of the Meduxnekeag river. The sun was shining, the birds were singing and the river had a salty/fishy scent that reminded me of the sea side, this was unexpected considering this is a fresh water river. We also have a number of other top secret location on the Blooming Wild farm, mostly in swampy boggy areas.

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In New Brunswick, Canada, the watershed of the Meduxnekeag is home to the most diverse concentration of mature Appalachian Hardwood Forest in Atlantic Canada.

This forest type contains many rare plants not commonly found in the province including: black raspberry, wild ginger, orchis, wild coffee, maidenhair fern to name a few!

Fiddlehead Fern
Fiddlehead fern on the back, on the heel
Oaks they sway to the breeze of my tune
It makes the sound so much sweeter about you
They go waltzing after midnight, around noon
~ from I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands by Cahalen Morrison & Eli West.
Listen to the song here.

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Identifying Ostrich Ferns and Health risks

Fiddleheads can cause food poisoning if you have improperly identified the plant or if they have not been cleaned/cooked properly.

Other types of ferns, like foxglove and bracken ferns, are not safe to eat. It is generally a good idea to find someone local who can guide you on your first foraging expedition and to pick up an edible plant guide for your region.

There are a few ways to identify ostrich fern fiddleheads in the spring:

IMG_4693.jpg Thin brown paper like scales covering the fiddle heads

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A deep, ”U” shaped groove on the inside of the smooth stem

IMG_4699.jpg Note The Smooth, vibrant green stems

Avoid these: The bracken fern fiddleheads are fuzzy, and lack the brown paper-like covering and U-shaped groove on the inside of the stem. Don’t eat these!!

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NOT Ostrich Fern | DO NOT eat!

Harvesting & Sustainability

Fiddleheads should only be picked while still tightly coiled and about an inch or two above the ground. Once the fern has unfurled you’ve missed the window of opportunity and should leave them alone until next spring.

Fiddle heads grow up from small crowns and each crown will produce a cluster of ferns (usually 4-6 ferns per crown).

IMG_4654.jpg Too mature – do not pick

To ensure a sustainable harvest please never take more than half the fiddle heads from each crown. Taking more or all of the fiddle heads can harm the plant. Never take more than you need!

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Fiddlehead crown

To harvest, bring along a pail and simply snap off a bit of stem and the curled tip with your fingers. They break extremely easily and a knife is not necessary.

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Cleaning

Using your fingers, remove as much of the brown papery husk on the fiddlehead as possible. Rinse the fiddle heads thoroughly. Drain, and repeat this process 3-4 times, taking time to agitate the water. Repeat until all the dirt and husks have been cleaned away. They will keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

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Wash in cold water to remove all debris and dirt

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Water after first washing – quite dirty!

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Nice and clean, ready for cooking.

Cooking

Do not eat fiddleheads raw. Cook the fiddleheads in boiling water for 15 minutes or steam them for 12 minutes until tender. You can then use them in your favourite recipes.

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Once they’ve been boiled for 15 minutes we like to sauté them with onions, garlic, butter and season with salt and pepper. some say a hollandaise sauce is very nice too.

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Freezing

If you are freezing the fiddleheads, follow the cleaning instructions. Dunk them in boiling water for two minutes and then plunge them into an ice bath to stop the cooking. They can be stored in the freezer for up to one year. Always follow the cooking instructions and cook for 15 minutes before serving.

Pickling/Canning

Here is a recipe from the University of Maine for pickling fiddleheads. We didn’t love eating pickled fiddle heads but many people think they are fantastic …so … if you have a lot give it a try and let us know what you think.

Pickled Fiddleheads

3 Lbs raw cleaned fiddleheads
1/2 gallon cider vinegar (5% acetic acid)
2 cups water
1/2 cup salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup mustard seed

Clean and wash fiddleheads thoroughly as per the instruction in this post. Mix brine and bring to a boil. Pour immediately over fiddleheads that are packed into clean, pint jars. Remove air bubbles, adjust the liquid to 1/2-inch headspace and wipe the jar rim. Apply lids and process for 15 minutes in a waterbath canner. Makes approximately 6 pints.

We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about harvesting fiddle heads!

Be well,

Charlotte & Ryan

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