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Early Spring Greens: Fantastic Fiddleheads

Fiddleheads are the best known and most coveted of PEI’s spring greens. I collected my feast last week, but you should still be able to find some now along freshwater streams and other wet places across the Island.

Photo 1: Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) fiddlehead. This is the species most commonly eaten in Eastern North America.

“Fiddlehead” isn’t a type of fern, but rather a stage of growth: all young ferns start out as rolled-up fronds resembling their namesake musical instrument. Here in eastern North America, the term typically refers to our native Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris, Photo 1), which is the most commonly eaten (you can sometimes buy it in grocery stores and at farmers’ markets). In areas outside Ostrich Fern range, species such as Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina) are eaten instead, but I recommend you stick with the easier-to-identify Ostrich Fern to avoid any mistakes.

Photo 2: Ostrich Fern fiddlehead versus some other common PEI ferns.

Ostrich Fern is distinctive among our species in that it is smooth, bright green, and has a celery-like groove in the stem (Photo 2, top left). It emerges with a brown, papery covering but that isn’t unique to Ostrich Ferns and so isn’t enough for identification on its own. Lady Ferns have dark scales (Photo 2, top right) but several inedible species (particularly the toxic Wood Ferns, Dryopteris spp.) also have similar features. Other fiddleheads you may find in Ostrich Fern habitat include Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis, Photo 2 bottom left) and Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea, Photo 2 bottom right).

Conservation should always be top-of-mind when collecting wild plants, and it’s usually easy to start an argument in foraging circles by talking about fiddlehead harvesting. Some people will swear you can cut all the fronds from a plant with no problem, while others say never take more than one or two fiddleheads from any one clump. I prefer to follow the science when it is available, and in this case, it is. Because of its local economic importance, harvest of wild Ostrich Fern fiddleheads has been studied in the state of Maine, USA. As far as I know, this is the only research to look specifically at this. The study found that removing all fronds from a plant is not sustainable and removing 50% of the fronds was similar to the unharvested control group. So – as a general guideline – don’t take more than half the fiddleheads from any one Ostrich Fern (and, of course, don’t take more than you will actually use).

Photo 3: Freshly-picked PEI fiddleheads reacdy for cleaning and cooking. For information on how to do this, check out the Wild Food Recipes section of this blog.

Wondering how to clean, store, and use those Fiddleheads you’ve found (Photo 3)? Head on over to the Wild Food Recipes section of the blog on my website (PEI-untamed). A big shout-out to the person who asked about roasted Fiddleheads at my spring workshop. I tried that for the first time this year, and the results were fantastic (Photo 4)! Fiddleheads are a delicious part of PEI untamed.

Photo 4: Roasted fiddleheads.

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