Fiddlehead picking, or “fiddleheadin’,” is a Maine tradition, one that was established well before European settlers set foot on American soil. The young, coiled leaves of the edible ostrich fern have long been traditional food in many Native American cultures, especially in New England, where the ostrich fern thrives.
At this time of year, many Mainers traditionally head to their favorite fiddleheading spots, where they gather up “a mess” of the delectable ferns to eat and share with family members.
“Fiddleheads bring back a lot of memories for a lot of people,” said Antonio D’Ambrosio, a forager who owns Wilderness Lodge in Elliotsville Township. “People share stories about picking fiddleheads with their grandfather or mother and father. And when one person writes a story, it just multiplies.”
D’Ambrosio also regularly updates his fiddlehead Facebok page, a tribute to the wild spring delicacy. The page’s 8,000-plus followers swap stories, recipes and foraging tips, anticipating the brief harvest season.
Finding the right ferns
Around the world, people snack on ferns. But not every fern is edible. In Maine, edible fiddleheads come from the ostrich fern.
Some other ferns, if eaten, can cause food poisoning — days of nausea, vomiting and other unsavory symptoms.
D’Ambrosio offers his assistance to rookie fiddlehead foragers. They send him photos of plants and he gives them the green or red light — to pick or not to pick. Often, it’s not the right fern.
It’s an ostrich fern if:
• The coils are about an inch in diameter.
• A brown papery sheath is peeling off the coils.
• A deep “U”-shaped groove is on the inside of the fern stem.
• The fern stem is smooth (without fuzz).
In Maine, fiddleheads usually emerge in clusters of three to 12 on the banks of rivers, streams and brooks in April and May. Often people stop when they see them growing on the side of the road, but it’s important to ask property owners’ permission to harvest.
“It’s been an issue, people going and picking without permission,” said Lauren St. Germaine, University of Maine Cooperative Extension home horticulture coordinator. “I know a couple of clients here who are upset; they went to harvest some fiddleheads on their own land, and they were gone.”
Fiddleheads should be harvested when the coils are an inch or two above the ground. But don’t pick them all.
“Areas close to towns where everybody knows about them can be over-harvested,” said Dave Fuller, agriculture and nontimber forest products professional at UMaine Cooperative Extension.
Fuller, who has conducted a four-year study on sustainable fiddlehead harvesting, suggests picking half of a fiddlehead crop, leaving the rest to grow into mature ferns and reproduce.
If you’re not a forager, you can buy fiddlehead plants online and grow them in a shaded, well-drained area in your backyard. Water them often.
Don’t have a green thumb? You can purchase fiddleheads at farmers markets, roadside stands and grocery stores in the spring.
Washing, cooking and storing
The taste of the young ferns is subjective, of course, but they have been described as a cross between asparagus and spinach with a bit of nutty or woody flavor. They also have some nutritional value. A half cup is just 35 calories and contains 28 percent of your daily fiber. Fiddleheads also contain a considerable amount of vitamin A.
It’s important to clean and cook fiddleheads properly.
“You can get sick from eating fiddleheads if you don’t cook them properly,” said St. Germaine. “They haven’t found the particular toxins that make people sick, but there have been incidents of people getting sick after eating them raw or lightly sauteed.”
Snap off browned ends and brush off the papery covering. Then thoroughly wash the greens in water several times until the wash water appears clean. No matter what recipe you’re following, make sure to steam or cook fiddleheads at a steady boil for at least 10 minutes, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If saving them for later, keep them refrigerated.
Kathy Savoie, UMaine Cooperative Extension educator, offers simple steps for freezing the tasty greens:
• Clean them as you would for cooking.
• Blanch a small amount at a time for two minutes in 4-6 cups of water.
• Rapidly cool fiddleheads for two minutes in an ice water bath.
• Dry the fiddleheads. (A salad spinner is great for this.)
• Pack the fiddleheads in a freezer grade bag, leaving some room for expansion and removing as much air as possible.
• When ready to put them into a meal, thaw the fiddleheads and boil them for at least 10 minutes before serving.
When D’Ambrosio posted photos of fiddlehead dishes during Thanksgiving, several page followers asked him about his preservation technique. He freezes them just like Savoie, but he tosses the frozen greens in the boiling water without thawing them first, which he said prevents them from turning into mush.
He’s more than happy to share his cooking tricks, foraging expertise and recipes, but his fiddlehead spot is under wraps.