Archived Mountain Voices

Always questions about the fiddlehead fern

mtnvoicesIn the early 1700s British astronomer and mathematician Edmund Hillary, of comet fame, called [the spiral formed by a fern’s fiddlehead] the proportional spiral because … [its] whorls are in continued proportion … The larger spirals are just expanded versions of the smaller spirals within [so that it is known as] the spira mirabilis or wonderful spiral.

  — Robbin C. Moran, A Natural History of Ferns (2004). 

When conducting a fern identification workshop, one of the first queries I can anticipate is “Where can I find a fiddlehead fern?” 

I reply that fiddleheads aren’t a species of fern but a growth form. Most fern species — to a greater or lesser degree — display the characteristic fiddlehead shape when they arise from the plant’s underground rhizomes.  

The “fern leaf” differs from the “true leaf” of the flowering plants in its venation, or manner of expanding from the bud. This unfurling strategy helps the immature frond make its way upward through the soil and leaf litter. It also protects the developing leaflets (pinna) that will comprise the leafy portion of the mature frond. The first fronds to appear in a new season’s growth are, for the most part, purely vegetative; fronds unfurling later tend to bear the spore capsules (sporangia).

The technical name for a fiddlehead is crozier (also spelled crosier). This is derived from the crooked end of a bishop’s staff, which is sometimes referred to as a pastoral staff. In addition to being highly functional, the emerging fiddleheads of some fern species are quite beautiful.  

Those of cinnamon fern (Osmundia cinnamomea) are a pale lime green and can stand a two feet or more high before unfurling.  Species in the wood fern group (Dryopteris species) often display wooly greenish-brown fiddleheads.

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But now we get to the heart of the matter. When most people bring up fiddleheads, they do so because they’ve heard they’re edible. They want to know which ones can be harvested for consumption. My answer is that few of the ferns in the southeastern United States where I live and work are edible. And the one that’s said be to particularly tasty is also thought to be dangerous.

Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) is distributed world wide, being commonly found along roadsides and in disturbed areas with poor soil. They display exquisite silvery-gray fiddleheads shaped like an eagle’s claw. My wife and I have never eaten them, but they are reputed to be delicious. I doubt that light consumption of boiled bracken fiddleheads would be harmful to anyone; nevertheless, scientific research indicates the plant contains a number of toxic substances that readily kill livestock and might cause stomach cancers in human populations (as in Japan and China) that eat substantial amounts of the rootstock or fiddleheads.   

Unfortunately, for us, the North American fern species bearing fiddleheads that are reputed to be the most delicious and absolutely safe to eat doesn’t grow wild in our region. That’s the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris).  Its distribution range has been described as Alaska to Newfoundland, south to British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, North Dakota, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, and Virginia in North American; Scandinavia, Central Europe, Russia, and Asia; with significant naturalization in Ireland and Great Britain. 

This species is described as displaying emerald-green fiddleheads and, when mature, having clumping leaflets (somewhat like Cinnamon fern) that taper all the way down to ground level. In this latter regard it resembles the well-known New York fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis), which is common throughout eastern North America as far south as Georgia. Although edible, I can attest that New York fern is not tasty, unless you are fond of boiled cardboard.  

Ostrich fern is readily available from nursery sources listed on the Internet. It’s advertised as establishing “vigorous” stands rather quickly in damp, partially shaded situations. One Internet source that I located offers a “Pkg. of 2 - $5.75.” Why not give it a try?

(George Ellison is a naturalist and writer. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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    posted by BRYAN FRANCO

    Tuesday, 06/08/2021


    posted by BRYAN FRANCO

    Tuesday, 06/08/2021

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