Fiddlehead ferns are becoming much more popular, both on restaurant menus and at farmer's markets. These popular, classic ferns are revered for their delicious, emerging spring fronds and their stately, vase-shaped habit. The fiddleheads—the tightly coiled, new spring fronds—are only available for a few weeks in an entire year. They taste wonderful lightly steamed and served with butter. Remove the bitter, reddish brown, papery coating before steaming. Fiddleheads should not be eaten fresh. They must be cooked first to remove the shikimic acid.
Fiddleheads contain even more antioxidants than blueberries, are packed with omega-3 fatty acids and dietary fiber, are low in sodium and contain vitamins A and C, niacin, potassium, phosphorus, iron and magnesium.
Starting Fiddlehead Ferns
Crowns for fiddlehead ferns can be purchased from your local nursery or a mail order gardening catalog and planted out in spring once the threat of frost has passed but are often available throughout the growing season, either as bareroot or potted stock. They are often sold as ornamental plants in the perennial department of your local garden center or nursery.
This particular species of fern spreads by underground runners. Space the plants approximately 2 to 3 feet apart. New plants will develop from the main root and can be divided and moved or left in place.
Growing Fiddlehead Ferns
Fiddlehead ferns prefer light shade or partial shade but tolerate full shade, or full sun if the soil stays moist. The soil should be average to fertile, humus rich, neutral to acidic and moist. Add compost to the planting hole to achieve a slightly acidic soil.
Moisture for ferns is rather critical. If the area is prone to drying out, consider using a thick mulch around the base of the plants, and possibly a soaker hose buried under the mulch, on a timer, to keep the roots and soil consistently moist. Leaves may scorch if the soil is not moist enough.
Harvesting Fiddlehead Ferns
Let your plants become established for a couple of years before you begin harvesting. Pick new fronds in spring just as they are beginning to uncurl, often in May, but varying depending on the length of your growing season, the last frost date and weather conditions. Mature ostrich ferns produce an average of 7 fronds. When picking fiddleheads, make sure to pick no more than 3 (no more than half) per plant to allow enough foliage surface area for the plant to photosynthesize and thrive throughout the growing season.
Fiddlehead Fern Problems and Pests
These ferns rarely suffer from any problems.
Tips for Growing Fiddlehead Ferns
These ferns appreciate a moist woodland garden and are often found growing wild alongside woodland streams and creeks. Fiddlehead ferns are also useful in shaded borders and are quick to spread. If you have a garden bed near a gutter downspout, these ferns will absolutely thrive there.
Recommended Fiddlehead Fern Varieties
Ostrich Fern (M. struthiopteris or M. pensylvanica) forms a circular cluster of slightly arching, feathery fronds. Stiff, brown, fertile fronds, covered in reproductive spores, stick up in the center of the cluster in late summer and persist through winter. They are popular choices for dried arrangements.
Fiddlehead Fern Recipes
If you're wondering how you can use fiddlhead ferns, there are several good recipes from my fellow Guides here at About.com:
- Sauteed Fiddlehead Ferns from our Guide to Local Foods.
- Steamed Fiddlehead Ferns, also from our Guide to Local Foods.
- Fiddlehead Omelet Recipe from our New England Travel Guide.
- Also from our Local Foods Guide, we have this recipe for Pickled Fiddlheads
- From New England Travel, Fiddleheads and Scallops.