Ferns: Can You Eat Fiddleheads?

Posted by on May 24, 2016 in edible, spring, Unmowed Blog | 0 comments

Well, the short answer is, yes and no.

First of all, what exactly is a fiddlehead, anyway? It isn’t a type of fern, it’s a stage of growth–there’s no such thing as a species of fern called a fiddlehead fern. A fiddlehead simply means a young fern, the way a sapling is a young tree. Ferns are perennials, and each year as they rise from the soil, the fronds of most species of ferns are curled in a shape resembling the classic curl at the end of a violin. Then the fern leaves slowly open, like a fist unclenching.

But there are fiddleheads you can eat, and then there are fiddleheads you shouldn’t. The fiddleheads of some kinds of fern are fairly tasty, if a bit fuzzy. However, the fiddleheads of some species (such as sensitive fern) are mildly toxic. So you want to know which fern you’re harvesting.

sensitive fern has reddish fiddleheads

sensitive fern has reddish fiddleheads

Bracken fern is the kind usually used as a springtime treat. If you see fiddleheads for sale in a supermarket, chances are they’re bracken, or perhaps ostrich fern.

You’ll want to know what kind of fern you’re gathering for another reason, too: many ferns are increasingly rare. Some are on state lists of protected plants, some on federal endangered species lists. Bracken, while not exactly common, is not considered highly endangered. Still, unless your plane has crashed and you’re stranded in the wild and on the verge of starvation, enjoy fiddleheads sparingly. I’m all for enjoying the thrill of foraging from the wild, but ferns are all too easy to eliminate from their natural habitat.

Many ferns also have fairly scary levels of toxins in them, even suspected carcinogens. For all these reasons, fiddleheads are an occasional spring nibble, not a staple of my diet. But their graceful and  astonishing curliness is one of the pleasures of spring–I hunt them with my camera in mind, not my cooking pot.IMG_9559

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