Antonio D’Ambrosio, like many foragers, keeps his fiddlehead spot a secret. At his Wilderness Lodge in Elliotsville Township, he waits for those little edible ferns to sprout from the newly thawed ground and coil into delicious bundles.

In the meantime, he 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.

“Fiddleheads bring back a lot of memories for a lot of people,” D’Ambrosio said. “People share stories about picking fiddleheads with their grandfather or mother and father. And when one person writes a story, it just multiplies.”

Fiddlhead 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.

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-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 non-timber 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 back yard. 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 sautéed.”

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.

Visit D’Ambrosio’s Facebook page.

Fiddlehead Dijon

Courtesy of University of Maine Cooperative Extension

Makes 6 servings

1½ pounds fresh fiddleheads

1 tbsp cornstarch

1 cup nonfat buttermilk

2 tsp Dijon mustard

¾ tsp lemon juice

½ tsp dried tarragon

¼ tsp pepper

Clean and prepare fiddleheads. Place fiddleheads in a vegetable steamer over boiling water. Cover and steam 20 minutes or until tender but still crisp. Set aside and keep warm. Combine cornstarch and buttermilk in a small saucepan; stir well. Cook over medium heat until thickened and bubbly, stirring constantly. Recmove from heat; stir in mustard, lemon juice, tarragon and pepper. Arrange fiddleheads on a serving platter. Spoon sauce over fiddleheads. Serve immediately.

Shrimp and Fiddlehead Medley

Courtesy of University of Maine Cooperative Extension

Makes 6 servings

1 pound fiddleheads

6 ounces linguine, uncooked

6 cups water

1-¾ pounds Maine shrimp,

fresh or frozen

1 tsp margarine

2/3 cup onion, chopped

½ cup green pepper, diced

½ pound fresh mushrooms, sliced

1 tsp thyme

¼ tsp pepper

1/8 tsp salt

1/8 tsp celery seed

2 tbsp lemon juice

Cut off ends of fiddleheads. Remove scales and wash thoroughly. Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan; add shrimp and cook three to five minutes, or until done. Drain well and set aside. Cook fiddleheads in boiling water for 10 minutes. Drain. Coat a large, nonstick skillet with cooking spray; add margarine. Heat until margarine melts. Add onion and green pepper and sauté until crisp-tender. Stir in fiddleheads. Meanwhile, cook pasta as directed, without salt or oil. Drain well, set aside and keep warm. Add sliced mushrooms, thyme, pepper, salt and celery seeds to vegetable mixture; stir well. Cook uncovered over medium heat three to four minutes or until mushrooms are tender, stirring often. Stir in shrimp and lemon juice; cook until heated through, stirring often. Place pasta on a large platter. Spoon shrimp mixture on top. Serve immediately.

Quick Sour Fiddlehead Pickles

Courtesy of University of Maine Cooperative Extension

½ gallon cider vinegar

2 cups water

½ cup salt

½ cup sugar

½ cup mustard seed

Mix ingredients, bring to boil. Pour over fiddleheads in pint-sized jars; seal. Process 10 minutes in boiling water process canner.


Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at