Beautiful, whimsical, delicious! Fiddlehead ferns are a sought-after plant with a very small window of harvesting time. These plants had been on my radar for a few years now (mainly because I thought they looked cool) and this year we finally got out at the right time, in an area with an abundance of fiddleheads to forage!
In our area, the ostrich fern is what we are trying to find. Though in other parts of the world, this will differ. When the ostrich fern is in its early form, before it unfurls it will resemble the top or head of a fiddle. Thus, the name fiddlehead fern.
We are located in South Central Alaska and here a good time to harvest is around early to mid-May in my experience. This may differ for different parts of North America. Fiddleheads are often found along rivers or creeks, though they can also be located in damp wooded or open areas. Our favorite foraging location is in a wooded area along a river.
The fiddleheads that you are looking for will have a papery brown skin that is flaking off of the plant. The larger the plant gets, the more of this papery husk will disappear. In addition, the plant will have a deep u-shaped grove going down the inner stem. These ferns will emerge from the same clump year after year. So, you will find a clump of previous years ferns underneath the current year’s growth. If you are unsure that what you have found is an ostrich fiddlehead fern, error on the side of caution and don’t eat it.
There is a short harvesting time for fiddleheads. Once you have identified the fiddlehead, you will want to locate the plants that are good for harvesting. The best ferns are those that are tightly coiled and as close to the ground as possible. The taller the fern, the less you will want to harvest it. As the fiddleheads get taller, they are less enjoyable to eat. You will likely still find some of the parchment-like husk still around the fiddlehead. If you do not find any, this is a sign that the fern is too far along for you to want to harvest.
To harvest, pinch the fiddlehead just below the coil and turn to break the stem off of the head of the plant. When harvesting, you will want to practice responsible foraging techniques. Never take all of the fiddleheads from one plant body. This will keep the plant from properly growing during the year and will damage it for upcoming years. It is recommended that you take less than half of the ferns from any given plant head.
Though some sources say that you can eat fiddlehead ferns raw, others state that raw fiddleheads may cause food poisoning-like symptoms. I chose not to test this out and I recommend that you cook any and all of your fiddleheads before eating them.
To clean your fiddleheads, remove all of the papery skin that is still attached, run them through cool water, and remove any remaining brown papery husk. Boil your fiddleheads for up to 10 minutes, depending on the recipe you are choosing to follow.
Fiddleheads taste somewhat like a light asparagus. They are commonly sautéed or pickled. This being the first year that I have harvested them, I chose to do exactly that. Here are the links to the recipes I tried out:
Sautéed Fiddleheads recipe from It’s a Veg World After All.
Pickled Fiddlehead Ferns recipe from Serious Eats.