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Active Outdoors

Active Outdoors: Searching the wild for fiddleheads

  • Actually, those fiddleheads (and a few dozen others) need to be washed clean of paper and blanched in boiling water , and the morel mushrooms need to be sliced before they are ready to sautee with butter and garlic. But the effort will be soooo worth it. (EasternSlopes.com photo)

    Actually, those fiddleheads (and a few dozen others) need to be washed clean of paper and blanched in boiling water , and the morel mushrooms need to be sliced before they are ready to sautee with butter and garlic. But the effort will be soooo worth it. (EasternSlopes.com photo)

  • When you go hunting for fiddlehesds to eat, you are looking for tighly curled heads, bright green with little bits of “paper” still clinging. Check for the deep groove on the stem as a final indicator. If you see a clump like this, you are going to have to pick selectively, look for the fern heads that are still tightly coiled. (EasternSlopes.com photo)

    When you go hunting for fiddlehesds to eat, you are looking for tighly curled heads, bright green with little bits of “paper” still clinging. Check for the deep groove on the stem as a final indicator. If you see a clump like this, you are going to have to pick selectively, look for the fern heads that are still tightly coiled. (EasternSlopes.com photo)

  • When you go hunting for fiddlehesds to eat, you are looking for tighly curled heads, bright green with little bits of “paper” still clinging. Check for the deep groove on the stem as a final indicator. If you see a clump like this, you are going to have to pick selectively, look for the fern heads that are still tightly coiled. (EasternSlopes.com photo)

    When you go hunting for fiddlehesds to eat, you are looking for tighly curled heads, bright green with little bits of “paper” still clinging. Check for the deep groove on the stem as a final indicator. If you see a clump like this, you are going to have to pick selectively, look for the fern heads that are still tightly coiled. (EasternSlopes.com photo)

  • Actually, those fiddleheads (and a few dozen others) need to be washed clean of paper and blanched in boiling water , and the morel mushrooms need to be sliced before they are ready to sautee with butter and garlic. But the effort will be soooo worth it. (EasternSlopes.com photo)
  • When you go hunting for fiddlehesds to eat, you are looking for tighly curled heads, bright green with little bits of “paper” still clinging. Check for the deep groove on the stem as a final indicator. If you see a clump like this, you are going to have to pick selectively, look for the fern heads that are still tightly coiled. (EasternSlopes.com photo)
  • When you go hunting for fiddlehesds to eat, you are looking for tighly curled heads, bright green with little bits of “paper” still clinging. Check for the deep groove on the stem as a final indicator. If you see a clump like this, you are going to have to pick selectively, look for the fern heads that are still tightly coiled. (EasternSlopes.com photo)

Imagine, if you can, a world without cell phones, computers and fast-food restaurants on every street corner. Okay, got that? Now take a small step backwards from there to a world without an interstate highway system, big trucks and grocery stores with huge produce sections filled with brightly colored fruits and vegetables all year long.

Now take another, bigger step back to a world without refrigeration, or grocery stores at all, where most of

the food you ate was grown and harvested within a very few miles of where you live. Okay, now imagine it’s May, still cold at night, and all you’ve had to eat since last October’s first frost were foods you had dried or canned, or which could keep in barrels in a cool, dark cellar. By now, your stock of canned fruits and vegetables would be depleted (your favorites would be long gone). And it would still be months before your gardens would start producing anything in abundance.

Wouldn’t you be craving something fresh and green? That’s why the first European settlers brought dandelions with them – the tender, tasty young leaves (before the plant flowers) are one of the first edible greens of spring. They still go well on a salad or boiled like spinach if you pick them where no chemicals are sprayed.

It’s also why fiddleheads are such a rite of spring in northern New England.

“Fiddleheads” in New England and eastern Canada, at least, are the tightly curled fronds of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). They are easily recognized by their vivid, bright green color and distinctive deep groove in the stem (a cross-section of the stem shows a “U” shape; in most other ferns, it’s a “D”). The tightly curled heads also usually have some light, brittle, brown “paper” clinging to them. Inedible bracken fern fiddleheads (sadly, much more common) look fuzzy; ostrich ferns don’t.

A lot of grocery and specialty food stores (at least in Maine and New Hampshire) will offer fiddleheads in the spring. They have to be picked and washed by hand, so it’s rare to find them for less than $6 or $7 a pound, and I’ve seen them sold for over $10 a pound!

Or, you can pick them yourself, which is where it becomes an Active Outdoors adventure. No one is going to tell you where their own secret picking patch is – you have to go out and find one for yourself (which is, of course, part of the fun).

Here’s the trick. Fiddleheads tend to grow best along the banks of streams, often in shady places that have flooded in the past but may or may not now. Most of the rivers in New Brunswick and Maine and many of their tributaries will have patches of fiddleheads. I’ve seen them along the Connecticut and many of its tributaries in New Hampshire (and as far south as northern Massachusetts). I haven’t found any along the Merrimack or any of its southern tributaries, but fiddleheads are very common in northern New Hampshire and Maine along the Ammonoosuc, Saco and Androscoggin. Almost any stream in the White Mountain National Forest could have fiddleheads growing alongside – but not all do. The other week, we found some growing within the city limits of Portland, Maine. You won’t find them everywhere, but if you look hard enough …

I deliberately haven’t mentioned my two favorite places to pick fiddleheads – you’ll have to find those yourself.

Once you know what a mature ostrich fern looks like, you can paddle or hike along in the summer and fall and keep your eyes open. When you find a patch, just come back in the spring about a month after the snow goes. Timing is critical. One year, Memorial Day might be prime picking, but in other years it may be all done by then.

In any case, if you don’t find fiddleheads, you’ve at least had a day outside. If you do find them, well, you’ve got something tasty and fresh for dinner! Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

A fiddlehead outing

I have several places I go to pick fiddleheads and I’m always looking for more. Unfortunately, none of them are really close to home, so I can’t just wander out of an afternoon to check on how they are doing and bring home enough for dinner. It requires an expedition.

My absolute favorite place to pick fiddleheads is a river island owned by friends. The island also happens to have a pretty good place to land a kayak and makes a nice, flat campsite.

We approach this little bit of heaven by launching our kayaks at a public boat launch about two miles upstream for an easy float down. Getting out requires a bit more effort. Either we have to paddle that same couple of miles back upstream against the current or paddle eight miles downstream to the next boat ramp. Usually that’s against a strong uspstream breeze.

Anyway, we’ll typically meet late morning, launch our boats and arrive at the campsite in time to set up our tents and eat lunch. If we’ve timed it right (we often miss), we’ll pick fiddleheads for an hour or two in the afternoon. That’s all it takes to pick as much as our kayaks will hold. Dinner that evening always involves lots of fiddleheads blanched first, then sauteed in butter and garlic. If we’re really lucky, we’ll have found a few morel mushrooms as well, though they are a rare treat.

In the morning, we pack up, paddle out and typically spend the rest of the day cleaning, blanching, packaging and freezing enough fiddleheads so we can enjoy them occasionally throughout the year, saving enough for a couple more dinners right away.

More fiddlehead info

If you look at the USDA Plant Finder, plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=mast, it looks as if ostrich ferns are taking over the world. Unfortunately, they aren’t that easy to find. If someone has found fiddleheads in Connecticut or eastern Massachusetts, I’d love to hear about it (you don’t have to tell me where).

The University Of Maine extension service has a very useful brochure, umaine.edu/publications/2540e/, on fiddleheads that should give you enough information to help get you started. Just add you own sense of adventure and bring your appetite.

(Tim Jones can be reached at timjones@easternslopes.com.)

Legacy Comments1

Love fiddleheads. And ramps. Two locally sourced wild spring delicacies. Problem with fiddleheads is they aren't around for very long. I picked enough for a meal last Saturday up in north central VT. Talked to a family member who lives up there on Wednesday and they had just been to the same patch that day and it was too late to harvest any more. Act fast if you find a patch! Ramps, thankfully stay around a lot longer - if you can find 'em.

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