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Helpful Herbs: Fiddleheads

If you live in the Northeastern corner of the United States, chances are you are familiar with Fiddleheads and the excitement that coincidences with their appearance for a few weeks every spring. While many other cultures have used Fiddleheads through the centuries, the fern has become a staple of New England culture.

As with any wild plant, if you are harvesting Fiddleheads make sure you can identify the Ostrich fern properly. Not all ferns are food safe.

Photo credit: UVM

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You can cultivate Fiddleheads, usually grown from the Ostrich fern, by spreading seeds after danger of frost in a moist area. The plants require little attention apart from damp, fertile soil to grow in. Often you will find yourself able to harvest wild Fiddleheads, and many Mainers venture into the woods during the month of May on a quest for the tightly curled fern leaves.

Fiddleheads are harvested as the fronds first begin to unfurl. The tightly curled ball of leaves resembles the head of a violin, hence this herb's name. The precise time to harvest varies depending on the weather, but is often in May just after the last frost date. Part of the allure of these delicacies is the narrow window of time in which they can be harvested, usually lasting only a few weeks.

Mature Ostrich ferns average seven fronds a plant, and you will want to take heads from plants that have been established for a few years. Be sure to clip less than half of the heads from a plant to make sure it is able to continue growing. The plant must be careful harvested, as if more than half of the fronds are taken it will not survive.

After cutting the head of the fern and removing the brown scales, clean your Fiddleheads by rinsing them in cold, clean water. Fiddleheads can be stored short term in a refrigerated area and are canned or frozen for long term storage.

You can eat Fiddlehead as you would asparagus, sauteed with garlic and seasonings. Many cooks prefer to use them in more complex dishes, and they add a delicious flavor to pasta dishes. Fiddleheads pair well with fish and shrimp, can be roasted with potatoes or included in a frittata or on a pizza. One of the tastiest ways to enjoy Fiddleheads is to pickle them. This way you can enjoy the springtime treat year round.

While some kinds of ferns can be carcinogenic, the Ostrich fern that produces Fiddleheads are full of vitamins and good nutrition. You should only ever consume these plants cooked, as raw Fiddleheads may cause upset stomach. With a flavor slightly nuttier than asparagus or spinach, Fiddleheads are good for healthy vision and give you immune system a boost. They are particularly high in vitamins A and C, which both help to fight off common illnesses. Fiddleheads are also powerhouses of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

Fiddleheads are not a uniquely American food. In Asian and Indian cultures they have been part of recipes for centuries, and are a popular vegetable side. They also grow wild in France and Russia, where they are often salted for storage and eaten over the course of the long winters.

In North America, from New England to Quebec and the Maritimes, Fiddleheads were first eaten by Native Americans and remained popular with foragers through the 20th Century. The village of Tide Head in New Brunswick claims to be the "Fiddlehead Capital of the World" and all Mainers are familiar with enjoying the seasonal delicacy in the springtime.

While you can find frozen Fiddleheads in some stores, this plant remains a seasonal resource in most parts of the world. Its flavors are synonymous with springtime to many Mainers and Canadians, and "fiddleheadin'" is an annual activity in those areas. The process of harvesting and cooking or pickling the delicate heads has been passed down through generations, and the taste of these plants brings back memories of springs gone by.


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