Fiddleheads: Grow Your Own!

Summer 2016

Farming Fiddleheads?

Raspberries and Fiddleheads Grow Together in Camden Garden

Fiddlehead croziers emerging in spring. English photo
A fiddlehead fern in late spring, with fertile fronds from the previous year. English photo

By David Fuller
Agriculture/non-timber forest products professional, UMaine Cooperative Extension, Franklin County

Ostrich ferns, an herbaceous perennial that can reach five feet in height, die back to the crown in the fall, and grow predominantly along river floodplains under the dappled-shade canopy of tall hardwood trees such as silver or red maple and brown ash. Conifers provide too much shade, and ostrich ferns will not grow well, if at all, under them.

Preferred soils of wild ostrich ferns are well-drained sandy loams with a high organic matter content with a pH range from 5.5 to 6.5. Although ostrich ferns may be temporarily covered by spring floods along streams and rivers, they do not like prolonged wet feet. Ostrich ferns will grow in full sun, but prefer part shade with protection from the wind. The north side of a house, for example, often provides a good spot to plant a patch of fiddleheads if you don’t own woodland to plant in.

In choosing a location to grow ostrich ferns, pick a spot that mimics ferns growing in the wild. Ostrich ferns grown in less than optimal conditions will not yield harvestable crops of fiddleheads.

Ostrich fern planting stock is available from many nurseries, including Fedco in Maine. There are few improved varieties, with ‘The King’ being one. Plants may also be dug from the wild, with permission, for transplanting. Dormant planting is best for plants from the wild, either in the spring or fall. Dormancy is signaled by the tops dying back. Dormancy in ferns occurs in the fall after a hard frost. Nursery plants can be planted any time they are available. When transplanting wild ostrich ferns, choose plants that are young to middle age, which lack a brown, raised crown. Older ferns lack the vigor needed to produce good fiddlehead and rhizome growth. Don’t remove more than half of the wild stand.

Ostrich ferns are assertive growers, spreading primarily by rhizomes. Plant them where you don’t mind them spreading. Plant the crowns about a foot apart and place them with the top of the crown buried to ground level. The planting soil can be amended to include about 25 percent compost, but don’t fertilize at planting time. Water the new plant in and give your new planting an inch of water a week, in the absence of equivalent rainfall, to get the plants established.

After transplanting, spread an organic mulch around the plants to a depth of three inches to retain soil moisture and minimize weed competition. When the ferns are established, they will produce a canopy that will shade out competing vegetation. Nearby brush and small trees should be removed to reduce excessive lower-canopy shade.

Fertilize in the spring with about 1 cup of compost or 1/2 cup of alfalfa meal per square foot.

Fiddleheads from planted ostrich ferns should not be harvested for a period of three years to let the ferns get established. When fiddleheads emerge in the spring, no more than one-half of the emerged fiddleheads should be harvested, leaving all subsequent fiddleheads to grow into ferns to make photosynthetic reserves for the next year’s crop.

To prepare fiddleheads, Cooperative Extension suggests carefully brushing to remove the brown scales on the “little rolls of fern,” washing them and then cooking them.

Cooperative Extension says that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has investigated illness reportedly associated with fiddleheads, but no toxin has been identified in the fiddleheads of ostrich fern. Still, Extension recommends cooking fiddleheads thoroughly before eating them. The CDC reports on two outbreaks of illness more than a decade ago, after several people ate either raw or lightly cooked fiddleheads at restaurants; it too recommends cooking fiddleheads thoroughly to be safe (www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00032588.htm).

Research done in Orono in 2015 confirms cooking times noted in UMaine’s “Facts on Fiddleheads” publication. For boiling, bring lightly salted water in a pot to a rolling boil and add washed fiddleheads. The water should fully cover fiddleheads when added. Bring the water back to a steady boil and hold for 15 minutes. For steaming, bring a small amount of water to a boil, preferably in a steam apparatus. Add washed, clean fiddleheads and steam for 10 to 12 minutes. With both of the above two cooking methods, make sure that the cooking vessel is loosely packed with fiddleheads, so that proper cooking temperatures are reached for the correct amount of time.

Serve cooked fiddleheads at once with optional melted butter and/or vinegar. The sooner they are eaten, the more delicate their flavor. They may be served, like asparagus, on toast. Cooked, chilled fiddleheads also can be served as a salad with an onion and vinegar dressing.

Sautéing, stir-frying and microwaving are not recommended methods for cooking ostrich fern fiddleheads. Fiddleheads should be boiled or steamed before use in recipes that use further cooking methods, such as sautéing, stir-frying or baking.

For more information on fiddlehead identification, sustainable fiddlehead harvesting and safe cooking, refer to UMaine Extension publications Bulletin #4198, Facts on Fiddleheads, and Bulletin #2540, Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads.

From Maine Home Garden News, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Sept. 2015; https://umaine.edu/gardening/blog/2015/09/04/maine-home-garden-news-september-2015/#article-2

Farming Fiddleheads?

Could fiddleheads be an economic crop for farmers to add to their planting mix? Maybe not at this point. “There is a relative abundance in the wild of ostrich fern fiddleheads so as to not make the planting and cultivation of fiddleheads economically feasible at the present,” says David Fuller, “though that may change with increased demand. I do know of one farmer in Franklin County with a wild ostrich fern resource who harvests fiddleheads for market and does quite well with it.”

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Raspberries and Fiddleheads Grow Together in Camden Garden

By Jean English

In a dense patch of backyard, Jan Conrad of Camden raises a productive and fascinating interplanting of fiddlehead ferns and raspberries. Measuring perhaps 10 by 15 feet, with clumps of raspberries coming up every foot or two throughout, and fiddleheads in between, the plot yields enough that the Conrad family enjoys fresh raspberries in the summer and frozen fruits all winter, in fruit salads and atop oven puff pancakes. They like the fiddleheads best fresh in the spring. Jan sometimes puts some in the freezer, “but then we never seem to eat them.”

Conrad’s raspberry clumps are 1 to 2 feet apart in each direction, but she says that a spacing of 2 to 4 feet would be better. She lets them grow wherever they arise rather than in neat rows, so they aren’t staked at row ends, as are commercially-grown plantings; instead she pushes a stick (including some recycled lacrosse sticks) into the ground at each clump, and five or so canes are tied to each stick. In the fall she cuts back the canes that bore that year, leaving the new canes to produce the following summer. When the clumps of canes become too dense, she lets friends dig and transplant some to their gardens.

Conrad transplanted the fiddlehead ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris, ostrich fern) from her mother’s garden, and her mother got hers from a friend. They’ve been passed around considerably since.

“Eventually they take over, and we have to have friends or large church groups dig them up” in areas where they are “very tight” in order to thin them, says Conrad. When they’re too dense, they don’t seem to just crowd the raspberries; she suspects they may actually release something that affects the canes, because after 10 years or more, raspberry plants among crowded ferns just stop growing.

Conrad’s favorite way to eat fiddleheads is with Hollandaise sauce; she’s also enjoyed marinated fiddleheads.

Here’s Conrad’s recipe for oven puff pancakes and raspberries:  Preheat the oven to 425 F. Stir together 1/2 c. flour, 1/2 c. milk and 2 eggs. In a 10- or 12-inch cast-iron frying pan or a round pan, heat 4 Tbsp. butter (or 2 Tbsp. if you grease the pan first) in the oven until it melts. Pour the batter into the pan of melted butter. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the “pancake” is puffy and brown (like a big popover). Serve immediately, cut in wedges and topped with raspberries and yogurt (and/or strawberries, blueberries, pineapple, fresh pears, etc.). Drizzle a little maple syrup on top.

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