(Pteridium aquilinum, and others – Family Polypodiaceae)
Fiddlehead fern, fiddlehead greens, ostrich fern, bracken fern, brake fern
The common fern family, Polypodiaceae, produces a multitude of edible “fiddleheads”.
The Matteuccia struthiopteris variety is the kind most often collected in Canada and mainland US. In Hawaii, it is the Diplazium esculentum that is the most common.
The ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)
is another popular variety collected.
Originating in Asia, the osterich fern is one of more than twenty species that regularly figured in the diet of the early American Indians. New Zealand has almost 200 native ferns, and the Pteridium aquilinum was an important plant food source for the Maori before the introduction of sweet potatoes and maize by white settlers.
However, the fern most prized by them was Asplenium bulbiferum,
the hen and chicken fern.
is popular with native peoples in Canada, as well as in Japan and Korea, as is the cinnamon fern,
zenmai (Osmunda cinnamomoea). Bracken root was often preferred to the shoot and made into warabi starch in Japan. Although consumption of these, and of the royal fern (Osmunda regalis),
is an old practice in the Far East, experts are now advising against it as there is considerable evidence that they cause cancer of the stomach and esophagus, and eating only the young ostrich fern
The name fiddlehead refers to the resemblance between the tightly curled shoots and the scroll on a violin head. The practice of eating them is said to have started with the French settlers, who took that cue from the American Indian.
The Maliseet Indians of New Brunswick, Canada, have a long history of harvesting and eating fiddleheads. They consider them to be a medicine, as well as a food, and were known to mark their canoes, wigwams, and clothing with a fiddlehead motif.
The part that is eaten is the very young, tightly coiled shoot as it breaks through the ground in the spring. It is covered with brown scales which have to be scraped off, then boiled in at least one change of water to remove the bitterness. The texture is then crisp and the flavour nutty.
Very young shoots can also be grilled, peeled, and eaten without any further preparation. The shoots resemble green asparagus in appearance. The taste is halfway between asparagus and spinach, but some think it is more like artichokes or wild mushrooms. Regardless, they are earthy, a little nutty, and somewhat grassy.
All types of ferns go through a fiddlehead stage just prior to unfurling their new leaves. However, not all ferns are safe to eat as many are carcinogenic. The “osterich” fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) is the only non-carcinogenic fern.
Although several ferns are suspected of causing cancer, there may also be some that are downright poisonous as farm animals are known to avoid them. Therefore, such plants should not be tasted at random. If at all possible, watch the animals. They know which ones are safe and which ones are not and, like nuts, they scramble to get to them first.
Some native peoples were known to eat the rhizomes as well.
They roasted them in hot coals and then removed the outer bark, taking the white inner part and pulverizing it for cakes or to eat as candy.
They did not eat the central fibrous veins as it was believed to cause paralysis. However, fern leaves, and hay contaminated with the fern, are known to be poisonous to livestock when eaten in large quantities.
The toxic ingredient is an enzyme called thiaminase, which destroys the animal’s thiamine (vitamin B1) reserves. Nothing is said whether this same principle holds true for humans, however, but it stands to reason that it should also apply.
When choosing fiddleheads, pick ones that are a deep or bright green, tightly coiled and no larger than an inch and a half in diameter. When they become too big, they taste like green wood and fiber.
Whether you find a dry brown casing on them depends on whether these scales have fallen off during the trip to the market. The scales are bitter and need to be removed before the fiddleheads can be used, which should be the same day as when they are bought or picked. They do freeze well after blanching.
If cooking them, do so gently and quickly as they will soon lose their whimsical shape. They are usually served hot with a splash of lemon and butter or soy sauce with a little oil, garlic, and sesame seeds.
Fiddleheads and mushrooms make a natural combination. Fiddleheads are a good source of vitamins A and C, niacin, magnesium, iron, potassium, zinc, and phosphorus.