The ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) belongs to the wood fern family Dryopteridaceae. It grows along riverbanks, in wetlands, and at the forest edge in temperate regions throughout the northern hemisphere, preferring partial to full shade and cool, wet soil. The ferns grow in crowns up to 170 centimeters tall. The crowns have a vase shape and the long tapering leaves look like ostrich plumes, hence the common name. Ostrich fern colonies expand via underground stems called rhizomes. The plants produce both sterile fronds (the tall ones) and fertile, spore-producing fronds (which are shorter). The unfurled young fronds that emerge in the spring resemble the ornamental scroll at the end of a violin’s neck, and so are called “fiddleheads.” Many fern species produce fiddleheads, but they are not all edible. Among those that are, ostrich fern fiddleheads are among the most highly prized. They have a distinctive flavor that some describe as grassy or “spring-like,” with a hint of nuttiness. Fiddleheads are available in New England for a few weeks from late April through May, at the same time that Forsythia and shadbush are in bloom. During this time, foraged fiddleheads show up in farmers’ markets and specialty food stores, as well as some restaurant menus, and individuals often collect them for household use. Fiddleheads have always been important in local cultures as they are one of the first vegetables to emerge after the long, harsh winter; in Maine, the spring tradition of “fiddleheadin’” stretches back centuries. After the fiddleheads are harvested, the brown papery layer that is sometimes present needs to be rubbed off. It is best to eat fiddleheads shortly after harvest, but they can be kept in cold water for a few weeks, changing the water every couple of days. They can also be frozen or pickled. They are typically boiled or steamed for a few minutes to make them tender and remove any bitterness, and then sautéed as a side dish or used in soups, frittatas, pastas, or stir fry. Fiddlheads are rich in vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Although ostrich ferns grow widely and are abundant in certain areas, they must be foraged responsibly in order to allow them to reproduce. Trials have shown that harvesting up to half of the fiddleheads in an area will not damage the population, but if multiple foragers go to the same site, or if one forager returns to a site several times, overharvesting becomes a problem. Foraged foods have become increasingly popular in recent years, and prices for foraged plants have risen to the extent that a professional forager can make hundreds of dollars a day selling fiddleheads (as well as ramps, etc.) to restaurants or stores. This has lead to overharvesting in many areas of New England and, in Maine, the state legislature has had to create laws and implement penalties due to conflicts between foragers and land owners. One solution to the increasing interest in, and demand for, fiddleheads is to cultivate ostrich ferns. This species is already a popular ornamental, and some people have begun growing it for food to avoid competition with foragers. In order not to compromise ecological balance and the ability of future generations to forage for wild plants, it is critical that foragers respect private land, check local regulations and restrictions, and not overexploit fern populations. It is also important to learn to properly identify ostrich ferns and other edible ferns, since fiddleheads of some species are toxic.