For centuries, when winter shed its white blanket for the delicate greenery of spring, the Maliseet, Mi’kmaq and Passamaquoddy First Nations foraged for and feasted on a delectable wild edible.
As soon as they introduced it to early European settlers, this curled green fern frond – which became known as a fiddlehead – joined the pantheon of delicious Canadian culinary treats provided by nature, right alongside maple syrup.
Finding, harvesting and preparing fiddleheads is a time-honoured Maritime tradition, but there are many things to get right to ensure that you source, harvest and cook the plants properly. This will eliminate the risk of harm to the environment and yourself.
Ferns emerge from the ground as tightly wound curls that resemble the scrolled top of a violin (hence the name fiddleheads). The most commonly eaten fern in the area is the ostrich fern, which grows near rivers and streams in abundance throughout New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and New England.
Despite deceptive similarities in appearance, not all ferns are edible. Correctly identifying the ostrich fern will be the difference between a delicious meal and a bad tummy. “If you eat the wrong one you can get sick,” says Dr. John DeLong of the Atlantic Food and Horticulture Research Centre in Kentville, Nova Scotia.
Getting it right
The ostrich fern is reasonably easy to identify, says DeLong, who has conducted research on fiddleheads for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The main traits to look for are a hairless frond and a horseshoe-shaped stem. “Many fern fronds are quite hairy,” he says. “If you see fine hairs on the fiddlehead, that’s not the one you want.”
Once you detach the frond from the stem, turn it over and take a look at the shape of the stem. “It will be U-shaped, not round,” DeLong says. If you’ve got the right plant, snap it off as close to the ground as you can using your fingers, a sharp knife, or scissors.
In the wild, DeLong says it’s best to be cautious about where and how you forage. “If cattle regularly visit the area where you find fiddleheads, think twice about foraging there,” as the fiddleheads will likely be exposed to animal excrement. The best place to look is near fast-running rivers and streams.
Be ecologically conscious as well, by not harvesting every last fiddlehead you see. “Harvest half and leave half so that they can grow and reproduce,” DeLong says. If you find fronds that are taller than four to six inches and are starting to unroll, leave them as he says they will not be very tasty. The ideal height of a fiddlehead is under four inches.
If possible, keep a cooler filled with ice in your vehicle to keep the foraged fiddleheads cool after you have picked them, as they are highly perishable. Before cooking, clean them well under running water and remove any traces of the brown, papery husk. Fresh fiddleheads can be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight bag for about one or two weeks, or blanched and frozen for later use.
Although some fern species can be toxic or carcinogenic, DeLong says ostrich ferns have proven to be safe in the human diet as long as they are cooked thoroughly. This means boiling them for at least 15 minutes to kill any illness-promoting pathogens that may be lingering within the tightly curled fronds.
Cooked correctly, this seasonal delicacy actually packs a powerful nutritional punch. They are high in vitamins, nutrients and fibre, and studies show they are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Fiddleheads at home
If rummaging through the forest floor is not your thing, you could try cultivating fiddleheads at home. Not only will you get the edible fiddleheads early in the year, but your garden will benefit from an attractive ornamental fern for the rest of the season.
Fiddleheads grow from a rhizomic clump known as a ‘crown’. Check local nurseries for availability or transplant crowns found in the wild during dormant periods in the spring or fall.
“If you see a crown in the wild, you will see the borders of it clearly,” DeLong says. Dig a circle about two inches wider than the diameter of the crown and try to dig down about a foot deep to disturb the crown as little as possible.
DeLong says it is important to get permission before removing crowns from any privately owned area and, just as with harvesting fiddleheads, not to remove all the crowns from one particular spot.
Fiddleheads do well in full sun or partial shade or as an understory beneath taller trees. The plants thrive in a range of soil conditions – tolerating pH levels ranging from 5.1 to 7, according to DeLong. The most critical factor to successful growth is moisture – keep the plants moist but well-drained and make sure they don’t dry out.
Enthusiasts like DeLong are hopeful for a viable fiddlehead industry in the near future. In the meantime, he encourages Maritimers to continue to, “pick ‘em right, cook ‘em right and eat ‘em right.”