Edible Fern Fiddleheads

Along the floodplains of the river are areas with large populations of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). The young leaves of the fern are edible.

In the early spring (May), the fronds (fern leaves are called fronds) of ostrich fern begin their development. It is at this time that they may be picked. Young fronds (leaves) develop as tightly coiled green croziers or fiddleheads. The fiddleheads are covered with whitish scales.

Ostrich ferns can be identified by their characteristic stout erect rhizomes (stems) which are covered with the brown remains of last summer's leaves. Erect rhizomes may protrude as much as 6 inches above the soil and often have the remnants of the past season's fruiting or sexual fronds attached.

Ostrich ferns in winter and early spring; note old sexual fronds attached to the rhizomes.

Ostrich fern colony along the river (Winter).

Ostrich fern in the summer. The green mature fronds may be 4-5 feet in length.

For exact identification of ostrich fern, see: Cobb, B. 1963. A Field Guide to the Ferns. The Patterson Field Guide Series, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.

You may also contact the UMASS Herbarium for help in identification:

Since ostrich fern fiddleheads are now available in the spring in some supermarkets, the following cooking information may be useful. According to M. L. Fernald, A. C. Kinsey and R. C. Rollins. 1958. Edible Wild Plant of Eastern North America. Harper and Row Publishers:

The young croziers should be washed thoroughly, removing the dry papery scales (including those in the tightly coild leafy tip) and the hard bases of the stalks, sprinkled with salt rather freely and boiled or steamed until tender (rarely more than half an hour), drained, seasoned with pepper (and salt if needed) and served in lengths with oil, butter, cream or a cream sauce, on toast or not as preferred. Or they may be cut or broken and treated like string beans. When thus prepared, a creamy sauce or straight cream or plenty of butter or oil is desirable, to counteract the dryish quality. Cut into small pieces, mixed with buttered (or oiled) bread- and cracker-crumbs, with milk, beaten egg and seasonings, and then baked until browned they make a superior escalloped dish.