The Incredible, Edible Fiddlehead

Elizabeth Thompson

Elizabeth Thompson › Elizabeth Thompson is a writer and photographer. She lives in Alaska with her husband and their ...


When we step out onto the deck it’s littered with bedraggled pussy willow catkins drying in the early morning sun.

The birds are having a spirited choral competition.

The first daffodils have finally opened.

The skunk cabbage are pushing up their strange petal-less flowers to welcome the first spring pollinators.

In the midst of this springtime awakening, I know we are all thinking the same thought: fiddleheads!

Each spring my daughter and I watch with eager anticipation for the signs of their short season.

Though they can be frozen, canned or pickled, like cherries and pomegranates, fiddleheads are best fresh!

Fiddleheads are best fresh!

Note: Fiddleheads should be cooked as there have been reports of illness when eaten raw.

The Ostrich Fern, which grows in shady wet humus throughout the Northeastern United States, Canada and Alaska is easily identified even in early spring when the only sign of its summer grandeur is the brown remains of its feathery five-foot tall fronds encircling the clump or crown they grew out of.

These ferns have a deep “U”-shaped groove on the inside of their smooth stems. Thin, brown, delicate scales cover the emerging fiddleheads.

Harvesting the shoots is the easy part. Research conducted by the University of Maine suggests picking no more than one half of the emerged fiddleheads from each crown, with no follow-up harvest of later-emerging fiddleheads in the same season, to insure future harvests.

Look for tightly curled fronds two to six inches tall.

The stem is tasty and will easily snap off near the base.

Cleaning the fiddleheads of their papery scales is the onerous part and I used to spend most of that time thinking of ways I could hack it.

To keep their vibrant green color, steam your fiddleheads until they are al dente and then use them as you would asparagus.

We like them best with butter, garlic and lemon because… well, butter, garlic and lemon.

Then, the other day while I was imagining ways to speed up the cleaning process and my daughter was imagining a machine she could invent that would make everyone kind and generous, she suddenly reached out and touched my arm:

“This is my favorite part Mom. I am going to do this with my daughter someday. I love you so much.”

Maybe not so onerous after all.

Remember not all ferns are edible. Positively identify any plant before eating.

Now get out there and discover the incredible, edible fiddlehead.

Photo credit: Elizabeth Thompson