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Thunder rumbled in the distance, but just a few sprinkles decorated the windshield as we rolled slowly down the gravel road. With eyes trained on the roadside vegetation, we searched for clues that our quarry was near. Too dry. Too grassy. Too brushy. Too wet. Then, finally: moist soil; a clearing in the trees; and tall brown stalks marked the spot.
Grabbing plastic bags and rain jackets, we clambered out of the car for a closer look. Curled up at the base of a brown stalk was a cluster of tiny curlicues. Each green stem was rolled up like the elegant scrollwork at the top of a violin. Delicate, fawn-brown flakes clung to the curlicues, like tissue paper protecting something precious.
Fiddlehead ferns! Their unique pattern of emergence, called circinate vernation, protects the tender growing tip of the frond within the tightly curled bundle of leaves. The lower parts of the leaf expand and toughen up first, until finally the tip of the frond unfolds—hopefully after the danger of hard frost is past. Not only is this method of growth practical, it is lovely to observe.
I had been worried that we’d waited too long (spring is so busy!), and had missed the brief, edible stage of the Ostrich Fern. Indeed, several clusters within the patch had already unfurled their fronds completely, rendering them inedible for humans. Snapping off one or two of the tightly curled fiddleheads from each bunch, we worked to fill our bag. A swarm of blackflies encouraged us to move quickly.
This wild vegetable is a spring delicacy among many people in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. With a pleasant flavor I describe as “green,” and a beautiful shape, fiddleheads can be cooked into many tasty dishes. It is important to identify your fiddleheads correctly, though, since many other ferns can cause stomach upset, and are known to contain carcinogens. Plus, they often taste terribly bitter. Ostrich Ferns, the most easily prepared edible fern around here, have a smooth stem with no hairs, light brown, papery flakes called scales that protect the emerging frond, and a deep groove on the front of the stalk. If the fiddleheads you see are covered in light orange fuzz or black hairs, leave them be.
Once you’ve identified your fiddleheads correctly, it is also important to boil them before you eat them. There have been several cases of an unidentified foodborne illness after eating raw or lightly cooked fiddleheads. Steaming or boiling for 10-15 minutes seems to eliminate that risk. I like to clean and boil my bagful all at once, and then throw the cooked vegetables into a skillet with butter and garlic, or into my morning omelet. A fiddlehead tempura recipe I recently saw online looks tempting, too.
Why should you bother to brave blackflies and wet feet to collect this odd meal? Fiddleheads are high in vitamins A and C, contain a variety of minerals, and like most vegetables are high in fiber and low in calories. Canadian researchers have recently discovered that they contain significant amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, and twice the antioxidants of blueberries. Plus, I love to feel connected to my local ecosystem by becoming part of its food chain and energy flow (in addition to my annual donation to the mosquito food bank.)
Foraging also gives me an excuse to explore. Ostrich Ferns form great colonies in river bottoms, and in rich, moist, forest soils across northern North America, eastern and northern Europe, and northern Asia. Their name comes from their huge, elegant, plume-shaped leaves. They can grow from the spores released from the odd-looking brown frond that sticks up from each clump all winter, and marks the patches each spring. Or they can spread through underground stems called rhizomes. The intricate network of rhizomes in a dense patch of ferns can help reduce soil erosion.
For many reasons, it is important to harvest fiddleheads—or any wild edible—responsibly. The University of Maine did research on the effect of several harvest methods. They found that harvesting no more than half of the fiddleheads within a single crown does not reduce the vigor of the plant. I usually stick to just one or two fiddleheads from each crown, and skip the smallest clumps altogether.
As our bag filled, the rumble of thunder faded into the distance and was replaced by a cheery blue sky. When a slight breeze blew away the black flies, we were able to unfurl ourselves, throw off our protective coverings, and enjoy the emergence of spring.
For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Lake Alive!” opened May 1, 2015, and will remain open until March 2016.
Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com.