The Queen of Spring: Fiddlehead

The fiddlehead of an ostrich fern is safe to eat. Learn how to recognize an ostrich fern and prepare fiddleheads for one of these tasty spring recipes.

| April/May 2000

If the king of spring is asparagus, its queen is surely the fiddlehead of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). Still all wrapped up in themselves, fiddleheads preside over their woodland empire, giving the royal nod to the beginning of spring.

Fiddlehead Fern Recipes

• Wild Spring Salad with Rhubarb Dressing
• Asparagus and Fiddleheads with Hazelnuts and Tarragon Vinaigrette
• Penne and Spring Greens with Lemon and Chive Vinaigrette
• Herbed New Potatoes with Fiddleheads and Bacon
• Fettucine and Fiddleheads in Thyme Vinaigrette 

Ferns typically produce leafy fronds, which, when mature, produce dustlike spores. The sexual phase of a fern’s life cycle occurs not in a flower (it has no flowers) but in a separate, minute plant (gametophyte) that develops from a spore. In the presence of water, a sperm fertilizes an egg in the gametophyte, and the fertilized egg in turn develops into a plantlet that grows up into the plant most people recognize as a fern.

Of the estimated 12,000 species of ferns worldwide, most emerge in spring from an underground rhizome as a tightly coiled frond that resembles the scroll of a violin—the fiddlehead. Many ferns produce fiddleheads, but only those of the ostrich fern are reliably safe to eat (other kinds are known to be or suspected of being carcinogenic). This species likes filtered sunlight and rich wetlands: riversides and the edges of marshes and swamps. Thriving from as far south as Virginia to as far north as Newfoundland and southern Labrador, they extend westward across the northern states to Washington and British Columbia.

Learn to recognize an ostrich fern in the summer, when the vase-shaped clump of large, 6-foot-tall dark green fronds are unmistakable. Unbranched, toothed leaflets growing from each frond’s main stem make it look much like an ostrich plume. The same clump may also boast a few much smaller fertile fronds, which bear the spores. When you find a clump of ostrich fern, mark its location (the fronds die back when winter comes) so that you may return in the spring to feast on the fiddleheads.

In April or May, when the shadebushes are in bloom and the wild leeks are abundant in the woods, grab a pail and a sharp paring knife and head for the ostrich fern patch. Choosing fiddleheads that are less than 6 inches long, cut the stalks close to the rhizome and then trim them to within an inch or two of the “scroll.” Collect only where the fiddleheads are plentiful and take less than half the fronds in a clump to preserve the rhizomes’ energy reserves.

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