Quite often, people will ask me what my favorite thing to forage is. Every time, I think hard……….and come up with the same answer. Fiddleheads. There are so many things to love about foraging for this yummy food:
- They come up early in the spring, when I’m chomping at the bit to get outside. In my journals from the last few years, I’ve noted the dates that I’ve seen and picked all kinds of wild foods, and I’m already scanning my fern spots for signs of life.
- It’s easy to pick enough for a few meals – Ostrich Ferns are prolific spreaders, often forming large colonies with the plants fairly close together. Snapping a fiddlehead or two from each plant fills up my bag fairly quickly.
- They are SOOOooo yummy! I like them cooked simply, just steamed and served with butter. The taste for me is like a cross between asparagus and green beans.
All ferns have fiddleheads – that’s the term for the curled up frond as it emerges in the spring. Not all fiddleheads are edible, though, so it’s important to know what to look for. Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) has the most commonly eaten fiddleheads, and here are some key points for identification:
- The “Nest”: See that large brown thing at the top of the above photo that looks sort of like a spider? The ‘legs’ of the ‘spider’ are last years’ fronds, and the lumps in the middle are baby fiddleheads about to emerge from a cup-like structure that I call the Nest. Other ferns grow in clumps, but lack that cup-like Nest Thing.
- The Paper-like coating: Those brown baby fiddleheads at the top of the photo are covered with a brown paper-y stuff that breaks open when they emerge. You can see a tiny bit of green poking out of the one on the top right. At the bottom of the photo, the fully emerged fiddleheads are nice and green, and you can see the remnants of that papery coating around the bottom.
- The Celery Groove: No, not a cool dance – not that I know of anyway. 🙂 You can see how those green Fiddleheads at the bottom of the picture have a groove toward the inside, like celery does. Other ferns have a slight groove, and Ostrich Fern’s groove is very pronounced.
- Smooth Stems: Lady Fern looks pretty similar to Ostrich Fern in my opinion, even having a slight groove, but she has little brown hairs on her stems, while Ostrich Fern stems are smooth. Sometimes that paper-like coating will break up into pieces, stick to the fiddlehead stems and look like hairs, but up close you can see that it’s not.
- Habitat: Ostrich Fern prefers a bit of shade, and moist, rich soil. I usually find them in the woods, sometimes with a river or a lake fairly close by.