Ferns: Can You Eat Fiddleheads?

Posted by on May 24, 2016 in edible, spring, Unmowed Blog | 2 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

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. Some, while not exactly common, are 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. A few big servings of springtime fiddleheads, and summertime ferns are gone from your woods for good. Long past are the days when hunter-gatherers could live off the land and not damage the environment.

Many ferns also have fairly scary levels of toxins in them, even suspected carcinogens. Do your research! Bracken, for instance, is often sold in supermarkets as a springtime treat but has a lot of medical issues to consider.

For all these reasons, fiddleheads are an occasional spring nibble, not a staple of my diet. But even a tiny taste is a link with the past, to the days when our ancient ancestors feasted on the first sweet greens of springtime. And fiddleheads’ graceful and  astonishing curliness is one of the many pleasures of spring–I hunt them with my camera in mind, not my cooking pot.IMG_9559


  1. Warning: You mentioned Bracken Fern as a springtime treat. The Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs states a warning in regard to Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum) specifically. “Poisonous – disturbs thiamine metabolism. Contains at least 3 carcinogens. One of the few plants known to induce cancer in grazing animals; contains the carcinogenic toxin ptaquiloside [among others], which damages DNA. Human exposure to this carcinogen can come from consuming milk or meat. Nineteenth-century writers warned that it has an injurious effect on the mucous membranes of the bladder and causes inflamation of the urinary organs.”
    It would be wise for fiddlehead gatherers to be able to distinguish each fern even at the fiddlehead stage and avoid the Bracken Fern. It might be best to stick with Ostrich Fern for fiddleheads unless and until more is known about the other types.

    • Thank you for this information! Everyone should be aware of these issues before gathering.

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