All About Fiddlehead Ferns (Matteuccia species)

Don't Miss the Short Season to Harvest This Spring Delight

Fiddleheads or Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)
Barrett & MacKay / Getty Images

Technically, a fern fiddlehead is the tightly wound frond of a fern before it expands into feathery foliage. It got its name because it resembles the curled end of a violin stem, also called the scroll. (Get it, the head of a fiddle!) While most fern fronds emerge as fiddleheads, all fiddleheads are not created equal. The young foliage of ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris and Matteuccia pennsylvanica) is generally considered to be one of the most delicious ferns around, and ostrich fern is also a graceful, easy plant for a shade garden.

Identifying Ostrich Ferns

  • Brown, papery sheaths cover the emerging fiddleheads, and as the fiddlehead emerge, the sheaths break into pieces. You'll usually find fiddleheads with a few bits of their papery sheaths clinging to them, and these are easily rubbed off, unlike the stubborn, wooly coverings of cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), which is also quite bitter.  
  • Ostrich ferns have an obvious, deep groove along the inside of a smooth stem. It's a clear channel that looks like it's been carved out of the stem.
  • Ostrich ferns emerge from a small mound of last year's dried, brown stems. Usually, these have broken off and may only be an inch tall, but sometimes the interior, fertile fronds (which contain the fern's spores) remain.

Ostrich ferns produce two distinct types of fronds: sterile, deciduous, soft, plumey green fronds emerge in early spring and fertile, stiff, dark brown, persistent fronds emerge in fall. They resemble dark brown quill pens and are not edible.  

The season for ostrich fern fiddleheads is brief: two or three weeks at best.  When picking fiddleheads, harvest with care. Don’t take more than two or three unfurled fronds from any one plant. This leaves the fern enough foliage to support continued growth through photosynthesis. Also, only pick fronds that are tightly furled. Unfurled fronds are tough and unpalatable.

Ostrich fern is easy to find in nurseries and garden centers, and since the plant has become endangered in some areas (due to non-sustainable wild harvesting), why not plant a border in a shady section of your garden, and reap the benefits, both visual and culinary? They are lovely, low maintenance plants, and while they'll be larger in moist, shady conditions, they will tolerate full sun if given enough moisture.

How to Prepare Fiddleheads

For hundreds of years, ostrich fern fiddleheads have been a traditional spring vegetable in the northeast United States and Canada, where they are often eaten raw. In 1994, an outbreak of food poisoning in Canada and NY was traced back to a single supplier of fiddleheads. Although ostrich ferns were accused of being the source of the outbreak, the species of fiddlehead was never actually confirmed. It is entirely possible they were not ostrich ferns. It is also possible that a contaminant was introduced during the canning process. And finally, not everyone who ate the ferns got food poisoning. In other words, while the fiddleheads may have been the culprit, it's also possible they were not.

If this makes you nervous, fear not. Health authorities agree that ostrich fern fiddleheads steamed for 10-12 minutes or boiled for 15 minutes are perfectly safe.

In New England and Eastern Canada, fiddleheads are often found in grocery stores, both canned and fresh. If you find yourself with more fiddleheads than you can handle, steam them for ten minutes, then freeze.

Try freshly steamed fiddleheads served over pasta with a little butter and a grating of parmesan cheese. The flavor is somewhere between green bean and asparagus, and even after steaming, the fiddleheads maintain some crunch. Ostrich fern makes an excellent, stand-alone vegetable when cooked and topped with soy sauce or lemon juice. Fiddlehead risotto is a gourmet spring dish and pickled fiddleheads make an unusual and tasty cocktail garnish. If you’re feeling really self-indulgent, try fiddleheads sautéed with garlic as a topping for a goat cheese tart.