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Fiddleheads

It’s fiddlehead season on PEI! If you have a favourite spot, now’s the time to check it out. If you’d like some tips on finding, identifying, and using fiddleheads, read on.

Photo 1: A comparison of some common PEI fiddleheads.

“Fiddlehead” isn’t a type of fern, but rather a stage of growth: all young ferns start out as rolled-up fronds.  Here in eastern North America, the term typically refers to our native Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) which is the one we most commonly eat and can sometimes be found in grocery stores and at farmers’ markets.  On the west coast, Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina) is commonly eaten but I recommend you stick with the easier-to-identify Ostrich Fern to avoid any mistakes.

 

Ostrich Fern is distinctive among our species in that it is smooth, bright green, and has a celery-like groove in the stem (Photo 1, 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. Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis) often grows alongside Ostrich Fern, but these fiddleheads are thinner, often red-tinged at the base and – most importantly – lack that celery-like grove (Photo 1, second left).

 

Lady Ferns have dark scales (Photo 1, second right).  Several inedible species (particularly the toxic Wood Ferns, Dryopteris spp) have similar features and so it’s best to avoid these unless you are absolutely sure of your identification.  My ‘don’t eat fuzzy plants’ rule applies to fiddleheads: Interrupted Fern (Claytosmunda claytoniana, Photo 1, right) and the similar-looking Cinnamon Fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) are both covered in dense fuzz and considered inedible.

Photo 2: Ostrich Ferns love floodplains. You can see the seed heads from last years plants, as well as this year's new fiddleheads, covering this typical PEI floodplain.

Ostrich Ferns are common across PEI and can be found in damp sites near freshwater streams and rivers.  I usually find them along waterways that have a decent floodplain – a flat area adjacent to the river that gets inundated during spring freshets (Photo 2).  They can also be found in roadside ditches in some of the boggier areas of the province, such as parts of west Prince and central Kings counties.

 

Conservation should always be top-of-mind when collecting wild plants, and it’s easy to start an argument in foraging circles by talking about fiddlehead harvesting.  Some people 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 but 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 use).

Photo 3: My first fiddleheads of the season, collected on May 8.

Wondering how to clean, store, and use those Fiddleheads you’ve found (Photo 3)?  You can find my tips and tricks here: https://www.pei-untamed.com/post/fiddleheads-cleaning-storing-and-cooking.  Fiddlehead season is short, so enjoy this delicious part of PEI untamed!

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