Fiddleheads are often considered a delicacy, but choosing the wrong ones can mean poisoning. The ostrich fern fiddlehead is the most popular fiddlehead in the Northeastern United States, and one of the most-favored amongst chefs. Growers have been cultivating them, with varied success, for centuries.
Growing Conditions for Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads
Ostrich ferns prefer cool, damp weather and swampland’s rich soil. In the wild, they are usually found near rivers and streams where the ground is wet and high in nutrients. For cultivation, growers usually mimic these conditions with soil selection and watering.
Although gardeners are not always successful in growing fiddleheads, the best solution is to mimic their natural environment as closely as possible. Planting in the cool weather of the early spring (or even in the fall) and keeping soil moist are most important. Protecting the fiddlehead sprouts from pests that would eat them is also important.
Identifying Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads
The fiddlehead is the young, coiled leaves of the ostrich fern. They are so named because they look like the scroll on the neck of a violin (fiddle). Most ferns grow fiddleheads, so identifying the right type to pick is important.
Ostrich fern fiddleheads are about an inch in diameter and have a brown, papery, scale-like covering on the uncoiled fern and a smooth fern stem. The deep, U-shaped groove along the inside of the fern stem is a giveaway. Check out this video on fiddlehead identification from the University of Maine for more information. They usually cluster in groups of 3 to 12 near rivers, streams and brooks in April and May. Remember to leave behind enough fiddleheads to sustain a new crop the following year.
The most popular way to cook fiddleheads is the same way you would prepare Brussels sprouts or similar foods. They should be boiled in water for about ten minutes, then blanched to keep them from getting too soft. Always boil or steam for at least 10 minutes, because they can carry a toxic substance that produces food poisoning symptoms in some people, if they are not well-cooked. They are best eaten immediately. Refrigeration tends to curl and soften them, making them less tasty. Fresh fiddleheads can be refrigerated for up to a week, however.
They can be preserved in the same way, by cleaning and boiling them, then blanching and freezing in an air-tight container. Pickling is another method that many have begun trying. Recipes usually include boiled vinegar and spices (simple salt to complex mixes of nutmeg and peppers) and the usual canning method of boiled jars. Sugar can be added to make sweet pickles of the fiddleheads.