Sunday, May 13, 2007


My fascination with fiddlehead ferns began as a young child when my Mother told me stories of her collecting the young curly tops for food. For fun and tradition she had me do the same. Northwest tribes had many uses for plants most people now find so familiar, they often view them as a nuisance or as weeds. Most people tend to disregard these familiar plants or grow them in their gardens as ornamentals without any thought to their history or use.

Nearly every single bit of the sword fern plant was used by Pacific Northwest Native Americans. The rhizomes were peeled and baked in a pit, then served with fresh or dried salmon eggs; its leaves were used to line the baking pit, as well as for mattresses. The young leaves were chewed to soothe a sore throat. The Quinaults boiled the roots and washed their hair in the resultant water to cure dandruff. Lummi women chewed the new, curled leaves to hasten childbirth. Source Valerie Easton Native Times.

General Description: Fiddlehead ferns are new-growth fronds, usually of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). The name “fiddlehead” refers to any unfurled fern, not to a particular variety, because of their resemblance to the scroll of a violin (or fiddle) head. Fiddleheads taste like asparagus combined with artichoke. Note that fiddlehead ferns should be consumed very young and in limited quantities, because of risks that they are carcinogenic. They must be cooked before eating to remove bitterness and minimize gastric problems.

Season: The fiddlehead fern season lasts about 2 weeks in any locale, starting in early April in the South through late July in Canada.

Purchase: Choose fiddleheads that are bright jade green, springy, and firm.

Avoid: Avoid fiddleheads with excessive fuzzy brown scales. Any scales should not be at all blackened.

Storage: Fiddleheads do not keep well. They should be wrapped in plastic, refrigerated, and eaten within 2 days.


  1. Trim the base of each fiddlehead, leaving only a small tail protruding beyond the curled section.
  2. Rub off any brown scales with your hands.
  3. Rinse well.
  4. Boil in salted water 3 to 5 minutes. If desired, add a pinch of baking soda to the cooking water to soften them and brighten their color.

Serving Suggestions: Toss with butter and chopped herbs. Cool and toss at the last minute with mild vinaigrette. Treat like asparagus: drizzle with lemon butter, cheese sauce, or hollandaise. Toss with soy sauce and sesame seeds.

Flavor Affinities: Asparagus, butter, lemon, morel mushrooms, new potatoes, salmon, watercress

A word of caution about preparing fiddleheads for consumption. You should boil or steam them for at least 10 minutes. Don't confuse the ostrich fern with the bracken fern, a poisonous plant scientists believe is carcinogenic. The two species look alike from a distance, and their fiddleheads are similar. An easy way to tell the two species apart is to look at them when they're mature. The bracken fern's leaves have branches. The ostrich fern's leaves have no branches, have a single stem, and emerge from the ground as though they are in a vase.

The ostrich fern is a cheap and easy way to add beauty to your garden. They require little maintenance, but plenty of water.

Shrimp and Fiddlehead Medley

1 pound fiddleheads
6 ounces linguine, uncooked
6 cups water
1-3/4 pounds Maine shrimp, fresh or frozen
1 teaspoon margarine
2/3 cup onion, chopped
1/2 cup green pepper, diced
1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon celery seed
2 tablespoons lemon juice

Cut off ends of fiddleheads. Remove scales and wash thoroughly. Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan; add shrimp and cook three to five minutes, or until done. Drain well, and set aside. Cook fiddleheads in boiling water for ten minutes. Drain. Coat a large, nonstick skillet with cooking spray; add margarine. Heat until margarine melts. Add onion and green pepper and saut� until crisp-tender. Stir in fiddleheads. Meanwhile, cook pasta as directed, without salt or oil. Drain well, set aside and keep warm.

Add sliced mushrooms, thyme, pepper, salt and celery seeds to vegetable mixture; stir well. Cook, uncovered, over medium heat three to four minutes or until mushrooms are tender, stirring often. Stir in shrimp and lemon juice; cook until heated through, stirring often.

Place pasta on a large platter. Spoon shrimp mixture on top. Serve immediately. Serves 6.

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