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Fiddleheads are a Wild Maine Treat

June 17, 2004

Fiddleheads are the tightly curled tips of the
ostrich fern and are a spring delicacy

"My neighborhood supplier hasn't brought me any fiddleheads this spring. Am I too late? Have I missed the fiddlehead season this year?" Bob Greene asked me recently. Bob and Lin live down the road at Mac's Corner, and had been away for a couple of weeks during the height of one of Maine's cherished springtime rituals.

"Don't worry," I reassured Bob. "This is a good year for fiddleheads. We should be able to pick them for another couple of weeks yet. Let me see what I can find for you."

For some people missing fiddlehead season is not a big deal, but for a Mainer gathering (and eating) fiddleheads from the wild is an important seasonal marker as we go from snow on the ground to the unofficial start of summer on Memorial Day. Fiddleheads are delicious and taste like asparagus and mushrooms combined, and are an excellent source of Vitamins A and C. I like a dish of boiled fiddleheads with a little butter and salt, but they are also delightful served with other dishes like scallops. A meal of freshly picked fiddleheads ranks right up there with the first mess of brook trout on opening day.

Fiddleheads grow in a clump from a central root

Fiddleheads are the coiled tips, or croziers, of young ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris var. pensylvanica). The croziers of the ostrich fern are dark green with a dark brown husk and a pronounced groove that runs up the entire stem to the tip, and are usually about two inches long and about an inch or so in diameter. Since the croziers need to be picked before they unfurl into the large fronds of the fern, the spring fiddlehead-picking season is short, only four to six weeks long.

The mature ostrich fern is magnificent, growing to five feet high with broad fronds. The fern spores are transported by winds and water, and it is common to see them growing along the flood plains of rivers. They can also be found in wet areas, roadside ditches and along smaller brooks and drainages in the woods throughout Maine during late April, May and sometimes into early June.

Lovers of these wild treats harvest fiddleheads all along the east coast from New Brunswick to North Carolina. Plaster Rock, New Brunswick has an annual fiddlehead festival on Canada Day featuring a 24-foot wooden sculpture of giant fiddleheads at the Tourist Park on the bank of the Tobique River. While fishing on the Connecticut River in New Hampshire I have passed miles of lush ostrich ferns growing along the banks. This spring my daughter-in-law April and I located two patches of fiddleheads within a half-mile of their new home in western Vermont.

As the fiddleheads grow the fern fronds unfold

Once you know what to look for, places to pick fiddleheads in Maine are all around you. In Sebago I know of several spots where they grow and I am sure that there are many more that I haven't found yet. While fiddlehead patches are not the closely guarded secrets that yellow morel spots are, their locations are usually only shared with family and friends. There is also an unwritten etiquette about picking. Only two or three fiddleheads should be taken from each clump of ferns, leaving some on the plant to grow into mature fronds. Pick only enough for you and your family, and leave some for the next picker.

Commercial pickers gather fiddleheads as a seasonal crop in five gallon buckets, supplying stores and roadside stands. A pound of fiddleheads costs from $2.00 to $5.00. Fiddleheads are also canned, and a 14 oz can costs $4.25 through Maine Goodies in Albion. I have heard that you can buy them frozen as well. Fiddleheads are ready to pick when they push their tightly coiled tips up through the leaf litter. They are best picked in the morning when they are woodsy-smelling and fresh flavored, and snap off crisply with your fingers. By afternoon, the croziers can have outgrown their edible stage, becoming unfurled fern fronds. Ostrich ferns often grow with other ferns, such as woods ferns and bracken ferns, but once you see the dark-green croziers of the ostrich ferns next to their pale green and fuzzy cousins it is easy to keep them separate.

These fiddleheads will be fully unfolded ostrich
fern fronds in a few hours

Rinse fresh, crisp fiddleheads in cold water using several changes of water, rubbing off the skins with your hands as you rinse. Bring a pot of water to a vigorous boil, using three cups of water for each pound of fiddleheads. Add the fiddleheads to the boiling water and simmer until just tender, about fifteen minutes. The cooking water may turn dark with bits of the skins in it, but this is normal, and the strained cooking water can be added to soups as a delicious stock. Drain and serve the fiddleheads by themselves or combine with other foods.

Since the fiddlehead season is short we freeze some for later use. To get them ready for the freezer, wash them in several changes of cold water and drain. Fill a pot with enough water to cover the fiddleheads and bring to a hard boil. Place the fiddleheads in the boiling water and return the water to boil for three to four minutes. Drain and immediately plunge the fiddleheads into very cold water to cool them. Place fiddleheads in freezer bags and add ice cold water to cover. Squeeze gently to eliminate air bubbles. Seal the freezer bags or containers and place them in the freezer. To use the fiddleheads, cook from frozen.

Fiddleheads are truly a wild spring Maine treat, and after talking with my neighbor who thought he had missed the season this year, I stopped at a fiddlehead patch and picked him a bag full.

"There," I said as I passed the bag to Bob at his porch door, "this should be enough for a couple of feeds for you and Lin. I'd hate to have you miss having your annual spring tonic."
Article and photos by Allen Crabtree

This article was edited and published in the Neighbors Section of the Portland Press Herald on June 17, 2004 under the title "Farewell till next year, fiddleheads".
Copyright © 2004, Portland Press Herald, used here by permission

Last updated June 20, 2004

Copyright © 2004, Allen Crabtree