Matteuccia struthiopteris, our native Ostrich Fern, is a fantastic addition to the natural or cultivated garden and, for a brief time each spring, offers up an edible delicacy to those who are informed and motivated to enjoy it. The furled up fronds of the Ostrich Fern (aka “fiddleheads”) emerge from the ground in early spring. And they will be gone before you know it. But even if you miss that, you can then enjoy the full beauty of the Ostrich Fern in all its glory.
I love Ostrich Fern in nature and in the garden because it creates an elegant, airy, dense mass of tall fronds that provide a wonderful groundlayer and contrast to other native forbs and shrubs. It is named for the Ostrich because of its long fronds, which are slender at the base and widen at the arching top, that resemble Ostrich feathers. It is a habitant of moist woodlands and stream valley natural plant communities. In the cultivated garden, while it prefers a moist and shady environment, it also can thrive under sunnier conditions if kept moist. Ostrich Fern is a host for several moth species and its rhizomes, which hold tightly to the soil, can be useful in preventing erosion along hillsides and streambanks. It does have a tendency to spread, which can be good or not so good, depending on your situation!
Ostrich Fern fiddleheads emerge in spring and appear with their bright, smooth, tightly coiled green stems often covered with papery thin bark. They appear in this unusual form for only a few days before they quickly grow and unfurl. They typically grow in groups of 3 to 6 or more clumps.
If you are fortunate to have access to an area where Ostrich Ferns grow (just a reminder - please do not harvest in natural areas or parks) and care to harvest the young fronds, watch them carefully when they begin to come out of the ground and seize the moment or you might miss the opportunity! The cooked fronds are edible and have been used medicinally (see the Native American Ethnobotany Database). Of course, be very sure you are correctly identifying Ostrich Fern fiddleheads because not all fern fronds are edible. It helps to rely on an expert. Here is an excellent resource on foraging fiddleheads from the University of Maine. Telltale signs are the smooth, bright green stems, the deep narrow ridge on the inside of the stems, and the papery covering.
Harvest the fiddleheads when they are 1 to 3 inches tall and have not yet begun to unfurl. Simply break them off at the base with your fingers. Make sure to leave at least half of the fiddleheads emerging in a clump so that it continues to thrive. Once the fiddleheads have begun to unfurl and are taller, its too late!
Fiddleheads should not be eaten raw, so you must cook them to enjoy! Rinse them and remove the papery covering. Either cook them immediately, store them for up to a week in the fridge, or freeze them for use later.
There are all sorts of ways to prepare fiddleheads to eat -- and lots of opinions. The simplest and easiest way to enjoy them is to simply blanche or boil them and, after cooling, enjoy as a simple salad with oil and vinegar. Boil the fiddleheads for at least 5 minutes (there is some debate about the length of time needed but I like to play it safe) and remove them to dry and cool on a towel. Cut the stems into smaller pieces. Position on a plate, drizzle lightly with olive oil and vinegar, season as desired with herbs, salt, and pepper, and enjoy. Garnish with fresh violet flowers if available. Soooo good...and tastes like asparagus. (Credit and appreciation to https://foragerchef.com/ for a more elaborate recipe that provided the inspiration for this simple variation).
Whether you choose to eat them or just enjoy them in the garden, Ostrich Ferns are fabulous native plants!