As spring begins showing signs of beginning, so does some of the best foraging of the year. Fiddleheads are a favorite among foragers, but have an incredibly short season.
These furled up ends shoot up from the dirt in late spring. And they are incredibly delicious.
What are fiddleheads?
Fiddleheads are the curled ends of a fern . The most common source of fiddleheads in the United States is the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris).
However, other ferns are also edible including the Western sword fern (Polystichum munitum), the bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), the lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina), the Cinnamon, or buckhorn, fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) and the royal fern (Osmunda regalis) within the United States.
There are other ferns outside the United States that also provide edible fiddleheads, but that is beyond the scope of this article.
Simply put, fiddleheads are the tightly curled ends of new shoots on a fern. If left alone they will eventually unfurl and turn into a new frond on the fern. Once they have began to unfurl, they’re no longer edible, sorry.
When are fiddleheads available?
The season for these wild edibles is really short. On average it is only 4 to 6 weeks long. And if your timing isn’t perfect, it’s not likely you’ll be able to forage anything.
Once the fronds begin to unfurl, your time is up, so you have to time it just right. The season varies a bit depending on geography.
You’ll usually find the furled up ends that resemble violins in late spring once the weather begins to warm and you actually feel like braving the elements for the first time in a while.
The season is typically around late April through May. But, like I said, it really depends on your location.
Where can you forage for fiddleheads?
These wild edibles are typically found in forested areas among streams, rivers, swampy and other wet land type areas in shady spots.
Unlike foraging for some things, these wild edibles will often take you off the beaten path. Ostrich ferns are most prolific in the Eastern United States, are hardy in zones 3 to 7. Some other edible ferns can be found in the Western Half of the US or throughout the continent depending on which fern you’re looking for.
It’s easiest to find the Ostrich, as well as other, ferns during the growing season, note the location and simply return to those areas in the spring to find your foraged goodies.
They are readily available and if you picked the right time it’s likely you’ll find hundreds of fronds for the taking, but we will talk about that in a moment.
The easiest way to identify the edibles from the not-so-edibles is to identify the ferns during the growing season and note their location.
There are thousands of species of fern growing in the United States and not all of them produce edible fiddleheads. I highly recommend identifying the ferns during the growing season and taking a field guide with you to help identify what you’re picking.
Some of the ferns that look like the ostrich are not only not edible, but can be toxic, so make sure you use care when identifying your plant appropriately.
Ostrich fern fiddleheads will have a bright green stem with a deep groove and a brown, papery material that is easily picked off or falls off covering the sides of the coiled up section.
Bracken ferns, on the other hand, lack the brown, papery material as well as the deep groove on the stem. They are, instead, fuzzy. The other edible ferns have other identifying features, but as I said before, it’s best to identify the fern during the growing season and note the place to return to in the spring.
When you find the tightly coiled fronds you’re looking for you’ll likely find a lot of them. However, over-picking can kill the plant and does not leave anything available for others (if you’re not foraging on your own land).
So, first of all, you want to always leave at least a few to grow into actual fronds. Otherwise the plant will die.
Secondly, pick the tightly coiled fiddleheads before they unfurl. Once they’ve unfurled, you can no longer eat them. They’ll be around two to four inches tall. You just snap them at the stem below the frond and put them in your basket.
Preparing fiddleheads for eating
As long as you pick the edible varieties of fiddleheads, they are safe to eat. However, fiddleheads must be washed and cooked in order to be consumed. If they’re not prepared properly, they will likely cause symptoms of food borne illness and you’ll wish you hadn’t eaten them.
There seems to be some disagreement on how cooked fiddleheads need to be in order to consume. Some say they need to be fully cooked while others say they need to be rinsed and lightly cooked.
Rinse your fiddleheads throughly in several changes of water first. Then, boil them for 7 minutes or so and then they can be sautéed in butter and garlic. This ensures they are cooked throughly.
You can also steam them for a bit and they are fantastic with morel mushrooms, which are typically available around the same time in the woods.
What do fiddleheads taste like?
You will want to quickly use fiddleheads after their harvest as they lose their flavor fairly soon after harvesting.
Their flavor is similar to that of asparagus with a hint of nuttiness. They’re actually surprisingly good.
Fiddlehead recipes to try
If you don’t want to simply sautée them or add them to your morel mushroom find, there are other ways to consume these delicious wild edibles.
They go great alongside eggs in omelettes as well as cooked and added to some hollandaise sauce.
This book has some great recipes for them as well.
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