Fiddlehead Fandango

They look great on the plate and their taste, though distinctly wild, is still approachable—a cross between asparagus and artichoke, some say. Me: I say their taste is totally unique, although I get that butteriness as well as the high green note common in so many wild edible plants.

Fiddleheads are the new growth of ferns, named for their violin scroll shape. High-end restaurants charge handsomely for these greens, yet you can find them coast to coast without too much difficulty, sometimes even in urban parks.

Here in the Puget Sound lowlands we get our first fiddleheads in early spring around the same time the salmonberry blossoms. The season continues into late spring in the mountains, and, as I discovered last year, you can get a second crop in summer where trail crews have wielded their machetes.

The most popular fiddlehead in the Pacific Northwest is the lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina). Elsewhere in North America, particularly in New England, the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) is considered tops and makes up the bulk of the commercial trade. There are whisperings of ostrich ferns in northeast Washington but I have yet to verify the rumors.

Look for fiddleheads in damp woodlands, swamps, and meadow margins. You want to get them while still young and tightly coiled; the unfurled fern fronds (say that 10 times, quick) are actually toxic. Also, you should know what you’re looking for. While there are no fiddleheads known to be deadly poisonous, some are considered mildly toxic or at least unpalatable. A good way to scout a fiddlehead patch is to find the leafed-out ferns in summer when they’re easier to identify and then return to the same spot in the spring. Last year I realized one of my admiral bolete patches was loaded with lady ferns, a feature I’d missed in the past probably because I was so focused on the mushrooms, so this year I plan to harvest mucho fiddleheads to freeze and pickle.

Fiddleheads don’t require any fancy moves in the kitchen to taste delicious. A quick parboil (1-2 minutes) and then saute in butter is all that’s needed.

They emerge dressed for the unpredictable weather sporting a variety of fur cloaks or papery sheaths. Rub off the coat as best you can before cooking. With some species, such as the lady fern, it’s nearly impossible to completely remove the chaff. Cut the stem close to the coil, which is also called a crosier.

Fiddlehead Pasta with Lemon Butter Sauce

1 lb pasta
3 cups fiddleheads, cleaned
4 tbsp butter
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
2-3 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp lemon zest
1 cup parmesan cheese, grated
salt and pepper, to taste

1. Blanche the fiddleheads for a minute or two in pot of boiling water. Remove with slotted spoon and add pasta to same water.

2. Saute garlic in butter until not quite golden. Add lemon juice and cook another minute. Add fiddleheads and coat thoroughly. Toss with pasta, lemon zest, and cheese. Season at table. Serves 3-4.

Caveat Emptor: Remember, fiddleheads are wild. Don’t expect them to behave like docile domesticated greens. My lunch of Fusilli with Fiddleheads was delicious, but one or two of the ‘heads was noticeably bitter, probably because I picked it too late. Always try to find the tightest coils closest to the ground, within a couple inches if possible.

27 thoughts on “Fiddlehead Fandango

  1. Saara

    Thanks for identifying which fern here locally is the one that should be harvested! Some of our locals get the bracken fern, but I wasn’t willing to take chances with that one (thiaminase) and I wasn’t going to run across any ostrich ferns in these parts. Now I can add another spring treat to the list!

  2. LC

    Saara – I hear ya re: bracken. Some folks get heated up about that one. It’s true that Native Am. & Japanese have eaten bracken for hundreds of years. Also true that certain populations w/i those groups have higher rates of stomach cancer. ‘Course, with longer lives, a form of cancer gets most of us. I don’t eat bracken myself.

    Wyldthang – Thanks for stopping by. Where in Oregon? I’ve spent some time in the Rogue River Canyon, near Merlin. Enjoy those fiddleheads! I made a total failure of a f-head recipe last night, which I’ll be posting about in a few days.

  3. Monica and Mike

    Hey there, thanks for the new ‘lesson’, while I live in the Netherlands (as an expat, I used to live in North Idaho), I am seeing many of the same plants here as in the Pac NW. Now that I’m looking for Nettles, they are EVERYWHERE here, and still not too tall. We had some great pesto last night, though the blender method of prep was tedious, might be time to invest in a processor. All the best, thanks for sharing! Monica

  4. Live to Hunt....

    Unique, distinctive and totally cool as usual Lang. Thanks for another great alter-recipe. We don’t get a lot of fern down here in the upper Sacramento valley – too dry and warm. But I do suppose if you headed to the SF bay area there would be plenty to choose from.

  5. LC

    Monica & Mike – Thanks for visiting from across the pond. It makes sense that you’d see a lot of the same temperate plants. I’m not sure what species of fiddlehead would be there, but I’d bet there’s a choice edible nearby. Let me know what you find.

    Jon – SF, or what about the Sierra foothills? You and Hank aren’t far from excellent morel and spring porcini habitat to the north…

  6. Poppy

    I bought some fiddleheads yesterday at the Farmers Market. Can’t wait to try them. Next time I’m out of the city, I’m going to look for lady ferns.

  7. wyldthang

    Hi again,I’m in the coast range of Oregon, west of McMinville. Lots of the same plants as in Wa where you are(I grew up in DesMoines), but still just a teeny bit different…fraternal twins rather than identical kind of differences(well,at least it seems to me) . Really enjoying looking back through your recipes, I really want to get your book! BTW, back in the 70’s I remember in 6th grade(outdoor school year at Camp Waskowitz in North Bend), at school there was a small woods in the back of the grounds. We foraged stuff–chewed fireweed stalk, made salal and oregon grape jam(not very exciting), and pineapple weed biscuits, ate the new tips of oregon grape(wow! sour!). Probably couldn’t get away with that today…

  8. Trout Caviar

    That’s a beautiful plate of twirly food, Lang–thanks for the preview of coming attractions. The earth is still thawing…very…slowly here in MN/WI, garden chives just barely poking up. Cheers~ Brett

  9. matt wright

    Brilliant stuff. I love fiddleheads, I just wish they were around for longer.

    I had some in a bag in the fridge, and they went completely brown and rather nasty.

  10. LC

    Poppy – Maybe a fiddlehead post for Mixed Greens? I’ll look forward to yr photos…

    Wyldthang – Love that area. Last time I took the road over to the coast from McM. we stopped for a rest and watched a bald eagle hunting steelhead along a small stream.

    Brett – You have a lot to look forward to. A few morels are being found in southern Mich.

    Matt – They are around longer for us b/c we can forage higher in elevation as spring progresses, even if the commercial harvest is mostly over.

    Kimi – Thanks for stopping by. Give ’em a try. New tastes are invigorating!

    Thanks for your comments everyone!

  11. LC

    Chief, I’m near Seward. Where are you? Maybe we could meet. There are a few nettles there but not much. Decent blackberry action in summer. Love the remnant old growth. Haven’t looked for fiddleheads in Seward but would be game…

  12. chiefseth

    yeah; lets meet up. I read that lady fern shares habitat w/ skunkcabbage and devils club. Theres definetly skunk cabbage at seward. Did yo know about the mushroom action there? Lots of chanties and a few princes from what I’ve seen. I’ll probably head out to the park sometime this afternoon. I’m at Rainier and Charles. Seth [cell]360 990 0121

  13. Camille

    LC- I visit your blog nearly every day. I’m from Vancouver, BC- basically the same climate as you- and have been following your forage prompts. I even found some lady ferns in Stanley Park, though I didn’t pick them cus they were not so plentiful.

    You’re inspiring!


  14. LC

    Chief – Couldn’t make it on short notice; I’ll give you a holler next time.

    Camille – Thanks for reading! Next time you find some lady ferns look around b/c there will usually be more, especially if along a water course. If you take 40% of the fiddleheads the plant will be fine; I’ve heard others say it will be fine if you take all of ’em, but I always leave more than half.

  15. nemo

    Wow!! i really think you should visit Nepal to find out more about wild experience in food. Stinging nettles, ferns, leaves of many wild plants and much more were cooked and served for decades in this Himalayan Nation. I was surprised to see stinging nettle news on Thanks !!!

  16. Anonymous

    SLT –

    Just read your post (as I was searching the web for advice on tracking down fiddleheads here in the Northeast). Heading out to the woods (swampy) behind my house to search right now and looking forward to making your recipe. See you in a few weeks.


  17. Casco Bay Soap Co.

    thanks for the recipes…our Farmers Market is opening their doors May 6th and will have Fiddleheads avaialbe. I posted a link to your blog for our readers to find more info. and recipes.
    thank you!

  18. Kristen

    Hello! I’ve recently started foraging and enjoy checking in with FOTL every couple days to see what’s new. Thanks for all the good tips!

    Regarding ostrich ferns, if I’m not mistaken they grow in abundance on the road to Fragrance Lake (north of Mt. Vernon and Anacortes). Have you ever been out that way? I’d be curious to hear if I ID’d them correctly.



Leave a Reply