Ostrich fern fiddleheads are the new foliage of the Matteuccia struthiopteris plant. The fern is called mahsos in the language of the aboriginal Malecite people, a word meaning “good magic.” The fiddleheads are found near floodplains or riverbanks in rich, alluvial soil, or in bottomlands thickets and woods. Fiddleheads have the form of a tightly cured green head with a thick stem that resembles the scroll of a violin. Ostrich fern fiddleheads have a taste similar to asparagus, beet greens, artichoke or okra, with a grassy or herbaceous aroma. They are also high in potassium.
The earliest people known to consume the plants were the Malecite (or Maliseet) and Mi’kmaq tribes of southeastern Canada (in modern day New Brunswick, parts of Nova Scotia, southern Ontario and southern Quebec). Colonialists and French Acadian settlers in North America also took to cooking the fiddleheads, often sautéed in animal fats, making soups or turning them into a tonic. Ostrich fern fiddleheads are mainly a foraged plant, and there is an unwritten code among foragers that sustainable harvests means taking no more than three fiddleheads per plant. A plant can produce only five to nine fronds per growing season. Gathering the ferns has generally been considered a family activity. Today, ferns harvested during the springtime are also frozen for use during other parts of the year. Fiddleheads can be found at farmers’ markets and supermarkets in Canada, but their sale is considered a small industry.
Today, the Saint John River Basin, a traditional growing site for wild fiddlehead ferns, has become increasingly polluted with heavy metals. It is possible that fiddleheads are reaching heavy metal toxicity levels and are becoming unsuitable for human consumption. Additionally, the construction of the Mactaquac Dam has also destroyed much of the fiddlehead’s traditional growing sites in the area due to flooding.
Image: Nancy Turner/Patrick von Aderkas