Now is one of my favorite times of the year, when the fiddleheads are just coming up! As the namesake of our nursery it comes as no surprise to those that know what fiddleheads are that I enjoy them greatly – but I am always surprised by the number of people that don’t seem to know – and that ask me what our nursery name means. (Sometimes it is hard to remember that not everyone is as much of a plant nerd as I am)!

All of our ferns have fiddleheads, tightly curled fronds that come up in the spring and then unfurl into the fern fronds that we see the rest of the season.  For northern New York, late April is the time of year when you can see (and collect if you like) these tasty treats!  Now – the second question that I get asked a lot is can you eat just any fiddlehead you see? And the answer is No.

Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) are the species of fern that are the ‘fiddlehead fern’ that you want to eat.  They are native to much of the northeast and northern centralpart of the US. You don’t want to just go out and eat any fiddleheads you see, you could make yourself very sick!  Some sources say that you can eat the fiddleheads of some other ferns – such as Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina) and Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum) but they don’t taste nearly as good – so it is not usually recommended. And other sources say that these same ferns are carcinogenic and to avoid them – so I think it is best to play it safe and just stick with Ostrich Ferns.  You never want to take any chances if you aren’t sure.

To enjoy fiddleheads in the spring, you want to collect them when they are just a few inches out of the ground.  They come up in clusters, with brown papery scales around the base.  Ostrich ferns look like a number of other ferns, including Cinnamon Ferns and Interrupted Ferns, so be sure you have properly identified the fiddleheads first.  If you don’t have fiddleheads on your property, you can buy some to grow your own (and then you know you have the right thing!). For more details on just how to go about it, the University of Maine Extension has some great reference information about how to identify and sustainably harvest fiddleheads here. 

After you properly identify and collect them, you need to cook them. There have been reports of people getting sick from consuming them raw(Although some folks will tell you that they do this).  Some people boil them. Again, there are many sources with lots of different information about how to prepare them and lots of yummy recipes you can find online as well.  I saute them lightly in a pan with a little olive oil and S&P so that they are still nice and bright green and crunchy – however, I will admit that this cooking method is not recommended by some sites such as the University of Maine Extension (in fact they expressly say not to do this – eek!).  Again, do your homework, and don’t take any chances.  Here is what the University of Maine Extension has to say about preparing fiddleheads to eat. They have a great shrimp and fiddlehead medley recipe on the site that I think I might try for dinner tonight!

The bottom line is that you need to do your homework.  These days there are lots of websites with info online – and lots of fellow gardeners that will tell you what they do – but be sure to look for reputable sources of information such as state extension publications or similar.  Some people might have a reaction to eating fiddleheads, just like some people have peanut or other food allergies.  So if you have never eaten them before, I would suggest following the guidelines from a site like University of Maine Extension – and just trying out a small amount to start.  I know it might sound like a lot of work, but for many of us – their fresh green flavor that is hard to describe – somewhere between fresh asparagus and just ‘green’ I guess – is a reward well worth all the hard work!

And then of course – you still have the lovely Ostrich ferns to enjoy the rest of the year as well.   They  are beautiful ferns for the garden – large and vase shaped.  The fiddleheads are just a tasty bonus in the spring!

This post was originally written for Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens.