Fiddlehead ferns

Wendy S. Delmater
By Wendy S. Delmater on Tue, Oct 7, 2014 - 10:37am

One of the biggest challenges a home vegetable gardening enthusiast has is finding perennial vegetables, particularly ones that can be used in edible landscaping. Other than asparagus and artichokes, what choices are there?

How about fiddleheads?

Fiddlehead ferns are a forage food in the early spring woods, but if you have the room and a somewhat damp spot in your yard, there’s no reason why you can’t grow them at home.

The edible part is a vegetable that’s really the early coiled sprouts of several different species of fern. Like asparagus, once you’ve harvested enough, they make a lovely green texture in your edible landscaping (and, in the case of the cinnamon fern pictured above, colorful spikes).

Not all ferns produce edible fiddleheads. Make sure you are buying bareroot crowns (like asparagus) of a variety that you can eat. (Note: unlike asparagus, fiddleheads should never be eaten raw). Some of the most common ferns with edible fiddleheads are the ostrich, cinnamon fern, and royal. I chose cinnamon ferns. The most popular fern with edible sprouts in North America is the ostrich fern, though. It can survive winters up to zone 3 and heat to zone 9.

Most ferns will only put out 7 branches or fronds each season, so you should never harvest more than 3 fiddleheads from each plant or you may kill it – which might not be a bad idea if they start runners and get out of the area you want them in. Fiddleheads can spread quite vigorously by underground roots and runners. You might want to keep them growing in a part of the garden away from your main garden patch or they can take over after a few seasons.

But they produce a small yield while having a big space requirement. You should keep this in mind if you are planning to add ferns with edible fiddleheads to your yard or garden. On the other hand, this is a great way to make use of a shady spot where nothing edible grows. Most people only grow a handful of plants, and enjoy a small crop as a spring treat each year. One way around space limitations is to introduce them to a local park or forest garden floor.

Do not crowd your ferns. Edible ferns can reach from two to four feet in height, and should have a minimum of two feet of space around them or they can develop problems with mildew or fungus due to the moist soil and lack of air flow. (This moisture can also cause problems with slugs and snails, but diatomaceous earth or pans of beer can solve that. Scale insects can be treated with Neem oil.) You should plant your ferns where they will get sun but also partial shade later in the hot afternoon.

Ferns should be planted early in the spring, but after the last frost has passed. When the first sprouts come up after planting, do not harvest any of the fiddleheads. Let the plant grow untouched for its first year. You can start picking the next spring. At the end of the season, your ferns will probably grow a set of fronds that will turn brown. This is not a disease: these late fronds make the fern’s spores. Perfectly normal.

Ferns of all types prefer constantly moist (but not soggy) soil, so you should water them frequently. A good layer of organic mulch is essential, as it can keep you from having to water them every day. And—good news!—they do not need fertilizers.

To harvest, slice the fiddlehead off at ground level before it uncurls and the leaves open up. They should only be a few inches tall. They will keep about ten days in the fridge, or you can blanch and freeze them for about 8 months. (Fiddleheads are one of those vegetables that really need an ice bath after blanching, though.)

As mentioned above, like rhubarb fiddleheads absolutely must be cooked. The usual way to prepare them is either by boiling or steaming; they can be served with various sauces as a side-dish.

Here are some recipes:


1 Comment

Don35's picture
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Jul 4 2012
Posts: 43
ostrich ferns

I've planted ostrich ferns several times with no luck. When my summer gets dry the ferns die. They need constant moisture. Depending on your climate they might need to be watered. I'm in southern Tennessee and have had a few dry months. My hostas have held up ok, although the deer love them. :) I haven't eaten them yet. Just planted air potatoes today that a neighbor found in the woods and gave me. Love the perennial vegetable concept!

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