It’s spring in the moist woodlands of North America when fiddlehead ferns begin to unleash their soft green tongues like a frog set to strike at an insect. These greens are one of the most tender and juicy wild harvest foods, available worldwide.
Fiddleheads in North America commonly are associated with the wet east coast or west coast rainforests, yet varieties can be found in abundance across the continent. Simply put, the fiddlehead fern is not really a type of fern of its own, but a general description of the new growth shoots for all of the fern family.
Like morels and other short-season spring delicacies, fiddleheads are available for brief days each year. They appear through the soft leaf beds of wet woodlands and shady waterway edges as soon as the ground begins to warm, quickly unfurl their fronds and rush toward full growth in a week or so. Unlike morels, they do not hide from sight, but form the lush carpets and undergrowths of many forests and thickets.
Two varieties of ferns – Bracken and American Royal – grow across North America, with the Ostrich fern found mostly on the east coast. Harvest them by clipping the uncurled sprouts. These wild plants are havens for small insects, dust and pollutants, and should be washed thoroughly before eating. While many instances of mild illness have been reported (mostly due to improper washing or cooking), there are very few reports of allergic or toxic reactions.
Because fiddleheads are neither a soft leafy vegetable or crisp root-like consistency, they are suitable for a variety of cooking styles and recipes. Simply sautee the greens in butter and a dusting of garlic, pepper, basil for a delightful side dish. Alternatively, boil the greens and serve with a little thyme. Top angel hair pasta with steamed fiddleheads spiced with paprika, thyme, cayenne and onion powder. Dash olive oil over dish and sprinkle with parmesan cheese. Fiddleheads can be a feature ingredient for a number of salads, used as a soup ingredient, served with a lightly-cooked root crop mix, breaded in oat bran, flax flour and corn meal prior to deep frying, or even pickled in brine after blanching.
One of the most exhilarating wild harvest meals that I have enjoyed in early spring began with a salad of fiddlehead, dandelion and strawberry leaf, doused with raspberry vinaigrette. The main course included boiled and buttered cattail root (potato-like consistency), fried dandelion roots, boiled fiddlehead greens, morels served with hamburgers blended with ground common plantain seed (harvested the prior year and dried) and freshly harvested horseradish root, grated and mixed with vinegar.
Spring is a season of opportunity for the lover of wild foods, and the opening act of that season is fiddlehead greens!