Fiddleheads, the young coiled fronds of the ostrich fern, are a springtime delicacy in Maine and New Brunswick, and in other Northeastern states and Maritime provinces. According to University of Maine Cooperative Extension, nearly all ferns have fiddleheads, but not all fiddleheads are edible.
The ostrich fern fiddleheads can be identified by the brown, papery scale-like covering on the uncoiled fern. Because they are perennial, they come back year after year, usually in late April, May, and early June, depending on the location.
They grow quickly, up to several inches a day, thus, the fiddlehead season is a short one. UMaine Cooperative Extension’s David Fuller, who is the organization’s agriculture and non-timber forest products professional, said, “In a given location, they only last about a week.”
Fuller explained that overall for the state, the season begins in about the last week in April in Southern Maine until about the first week in June in Northern Aroostook County.
“The best time to harvest is when the ferns have just emerged and the stem is from two to four inches long along with the unfurled fiddlehead,” Fuller said, adding that the stems are great to eat as well.
Fiddleheads grow in moist soil. “The best locations are beside river floodplains,” Fuller said, where the solid is moist, but not wet year round. “They can also be found beside brooks and I have even seen them on the edge of a parking lot beside a church.”
Because they grow in wild areas, fiddleheads are not a regulated crop. State law says one needs permission to harvest them, so obtaining permission of the property owner is important before setting out to harvest fiddleheads.
UMaine’s Cooperative Extension says it is important that fiddleheads are cleaned thoroughly by placing them in a colander and rinsing/spraying them with clean, cold potable water. They should then be submerged in a bowl of clean, cold water. The papery layers should then float to the surface where they can be scooped up and discarded.
The fiddleheads should appear clean after several rounds or rinsing and soaking steps. Once cleaned, they can be stored in the refrigerator for up to one week. When it’s time to cook the fiddleheads, they should be steamed for up to 12 minutes or boiled for at least 15 minutes.
In prior years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has investigated a number of foodborne illness outbreaks associated with the consumption of raw or lightly cooked fiddleheads. The described symptoms of this foodborne illness were diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and headaches.
These symptoms generally occur within 30 minutes to 12 hours after eating raw or undercooked fiddleheads and typically last less than 24 hours, but some cases could last up to three days.
More facts on fiddleheads, including recipes, can be found online at extension.umaine.edu/publications/4198e/
As part of UMaine Cooperative Extension’s Spring Gardening Series, a webinar on fiddleheads will take place on Wednesday evenings through to June. “The fiddlehead talk is a one-time program in a series. Folks can sign up for one class or as many classes as they are interested in,” Fuller said.
One can learn more about the various webinars offered, including the one focussed on fiddleheads, at calendar.umaine.edu/events/category/cooperative-extension.