Fiddlehead ferns! This time of year, they’re all over the menus at farm-to-table restaurants and piled high at farmers markets. So what’s their story? First off, take a look:
That’s what fiddlehead ferns look like when they’re all trimmed up and ready for you to take home. Some people think they’re beautiful. I kind of see it. But when I look at them I also see: ALIEN TENTACLES. Delicious alien tentacles, sure, but I wouldn’t want to be probed by them regardless.
Before they’re harvested, they look a little different. Like this:
You see, there is, in fact, no plant called the “Fiddlehead Fern.” What you’re eating is the tightly wound fiddlehead — which would soon unfurl into a full-fledged fern frond if it weren’t for your appetite — of the Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). In the northern U.S., the fiddleheads emerge from the crowns of Ostrich ferns in April and come on through early June. So ’tis the season.
Ostrich fern fiddleheads aren’t farmed, they’re foraged. Meaning, you’re not going to go upstate and find vast fields of ostrich ferns, ready for spring picking. Instead, the baskets of fiddleheads that make their way to markets and restaurants this time of year come from folks who go out hunting for them in forests, where Ostrich ferns grow in the shade, often along streams or in floodplains.
A quick but very important aside here — Ostrich ferns aren’t the only ferns that produce fiddleheads in the spring. They just happen to be the only ones we eat. And for good reason, that reason being LOTS OF FERNS ARE POISONOUS. If you want to become a fern hunter in the woods yourself, the University of Maine has a good guide to safe foraging for fiddleheads.
You can certainly grow Ostrich ferns at home. Unlike their fiddleheads, the full grown plants are undeniably graceful:
And you could even plan to harvest a few fiddleheads in the spring. If you did, you’d want to cut them from the plant when the fiddleheads are about two to six inches tall, and then you’d want to clean them thoroughly, removing the papery coverings they emerge with.
But a word to the hungry: you can only harvest about half the fiddleheads on a fern in a given year (otherwise, kaput, you killed the plant), and each fern probably has only four, maybe six fiddleheads a year. So, that’s three fiddleheads for you and all your friends to share. Unless you turn your whole house into an Ostrich fern showroom, which would be very Victorian of you, but perhaps not the wisest use of city real estate… One more reason to loudly applaud the farmers market.