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Fiddleheads have experienced a jump in popularity over the last few years, both due to the increased interest in foraging and the new restaurant trend of using wild ingredients. However, fiddleheads are not something we find in the supermarket. They don’t make it into frozen dinners or boxes. They only come fresh.
Fiddleheads, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, are the newly sprung and unfurled fronds of fern plants. These fledging ferns have exquisite culinary status, with a nutty, earthy flavor. Generally, the delicacies are served either lightly sautéed or steamed, either as a special side dish or a compliment to other springtime treats.
If fiddleheads are going to make it on a menu, then they’ll either need to be foraged in the forest, cultivated at home, or found in a farmers’ market. In other words, they can be hard to come by. Furthermore, like fresh asparagus and morel mushrooms, they are only going to be available for a limited period of time: in season!
The Right Fern for the Fiddlehead
The good news is that growing fiddleheads is fairly simple. These special ferns can grow throughout much of the United States (save the sweltering spaces), and where they grow, they tend to thrive. In fact, they will likely have to be kept in check as opposed to lovingly nurtured. In the United States, we get our fiddleheads primarily from ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris), though lady fern and shield fern are also edible. That said, it is important to note that most ferns are not edible and have toxic qualities. Ostrich ferns are widely available in plant nurseries, and they grow naturally in Eastern US, Europe, and Northern Asia.
Where to Grow Ostrich Ferns
Ostrich ferns perform best between USDA Hardiness Zone 3 and 7. They lean towards cold hardiness, growing all the way up into Canada, but they shy away from ridiculously hot (sorry Florida and Louisiana).
Like other ferns, ostrich ferns are partial to cool, shady spots where moisture is plentiful. For many, that means a shady back corner of the yard, along a drainage bank, or beneath a canopy of trees. They can also work in containers on a patio. Of course, the nice thing about this is that lots of other plants don’t enjoy the shade so much, so they won’t take valuable garden space.
Ostrich ferns can get rather large, as in six-foot-tall and wide, so they’ll also need some space to stretch. They also spread by rhizome beneath the ground, and they do so vigorously. They will spread out in as large a space as growers allow them. More ferns, of course, means more fiddleheads, which is what we’re doing here.
How to Get Those Fiddleheads
Harvesting fiddleheads is largely a springtime activity, usually starting in April (in milder climates like North Carolina) and extending through June (in colder climates like Maine). The fiddleheads will be sprouting out of the ground, reaching only a few inches high. They can be snapped off or cut with a sharp knife. It’s important to leave at least a couple of fronds in order for the ferns to survive.
When harvesting the fiddleheads, be sure to identify them carefully to avoid any mistakes. Ostrich fern fiddleheads have a brown paper covering that flakes off of them. The specimens collected should be a vibrant green. And the stems on the fiddleheads should have a u-shape, as opposed to being round or flat.
Cooking with Fiddleheads
Fiddleheads have lots of nooks and crannies, so they need to be washed thoroughly before preparing them. This can involve two or three good rinses with cold water. Then, the stems should be trimmed to remove any dried parts.
When cooking with fiddleheads, the rule of thumb is that they should be eaten as soon as possible and that the simpler they are prepared the better the results. Most fans like to cook them in butter or oil with a little lemon or steam them before adding some oil and lemon. They also combine with other spring foraging champions like morel mushrooms and ramps.
One thing for sure is that this is an easy vegetable to grow, one that comes back year after year, and the best and most inexpensive way to enjoy them is from the home garden. Isn’t that exciting?
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- Food for Free: Foraging for Spring Greens
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