Spring brings lovely scented flowers, lime green leaves, and the seasonal migration of birds that left the cold Northeast for their winter homes down South. Spring is also a time when we can step outside of our winter dens with our gathering baskets and walk through the meadows, along the forest’s edge, and even in to the woods to find fresh, abundant, and nourishing food. And for many food foragers, the beloved fiddlehead is a coveted delicacy.
Fiddleheads are easily recognizable by their tightly curled tendril tops. They are delicate, elegant, and radiate a sweet, gentle, and peaceful energy. To admire a fiddlehead is to be held in awe of its energy, it’s burgeoning potential to sprout out of the long frozen earth and slowly, slowly unfurl itself to the world. That is, if a delighted forager doesn’t harvest the tops, first.
This is why ethical and sustainable wildcrafting is so important – when harvesting fiddleheads, only take about 3 or 4 tops before moving on to the next patch. I never harvest more than 50% of a plant, and this practice ensures the plant will have ample ability to proliferate throughout the future seasons. Furthermore, harvesting living plants is also an exercise in gratitude – giving thanks is a wonderful way to build a relationship to the plant spirit realm, as well as a connection to the earth and ultimately, to ourselves. Together, let’s remember to be thankful for and mindful of the abundant food the wilderness offers us, now when the desolate winter is still a recent memory, as well as in each moment, always.
Unfortunately, opinions differ in regard to the safety of consuming certain varieties of ferns. It is difficult to discern which ferns are likely to make one sick, as there are many time-tested instances of people eating fiddleheads from every variety of ferns and faring just fine. Plant identification is very important for any wild food forager, and as a general rule, it is very important to know exactly what plant you’ve encountered and its level of toxicity before you decide to put it into your body.
Therefore, I recommend becoming acquainted with the ostrich fern, Matteucia struthiopteris, which is the most well-known and prolific fiddlehead in stores and restaurants. These ferns are easy to identify because of a prominent U-shaped trough running the length of the stem, on the inner side of the stalk. Furthermore, the stalks are smooth, with no fuzz or scales.
In mid to late spring, harvest ostrich fern fiddleheads when they are 8 to 20 inches tall. Ostrich ferns will grow to be 3 to 6 feet tall, so the size of the plant is less important than the quality of the top, which should be tenderly firm and bright green, while the leaves of the frond remain unfurled. Simply snap the tops off of the stalk with your fingers. Although the fiddlehead is the coveted portion of the plant, the stalk itself is a juicy, refreshing, and nutritious food, and can be prepared alongside the fiddleheads for a scrumptious meal.
And fiddleheads are a great food for the entire family because they are very nutritious, with high levels of vitamins A and C, as well as omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. This means that fiddleheads are a source of antioxidants. They also reduce inflammation and help the body fight the cold and flu. Fiddleheads contain minerals and electrolytes, especially potassium, iron, manganese, and copper. Furthermore, they are a wonderful source of fiber.
While these ferns can be eaten raw, it is recommended that you don’t eat them uncooked in large quantities. Fortunately, there are many wonderful ways to enjoy fiddleheads. When I harvest fiddleheads with the intention of cooking them that night, I love to sauté them in garlic for a simple accompaniment to almost any meal. Since fiddleheads are only available for a short time, sometimes it’s nice to preserve and store them so they can be enjoyed months later. I’ve come to love pickled fiddleheads, and I look forward to exploring many different recipes. Let me know how you foraged and fixed your fiddleheads, and many thanks for reading my musings about our beloved fiddlehead, an ephemeral, nourishing food source that grows close to our homes, and close to our hearts.