Photo and article by Donna Iverson
It’s native. It’s an edible delicacy. It’s easy to grow. It’s a favorite foraging plant. It's perennial. It’s a fiddlehead.
No need to search the woods for them in the spring. You can grow them in your yard or garden …all you need is a damp shady spot.
The very best fern to plant for fiddleheads is the Ostrich fern. Easily recognizable by its large vase shaped fronds which can reach six feet in height.
There are dozens of ferns native to Michigan including the Maidenhair fern, Cinnamon fern, Hay-scented fern, Sensitive fern, Bracken fern, Lady fern and the Ostrich fern. But only the last three sprout edible fiddleheads with the Ostrich fern being your safest choice. In fact, botanists claim that only the Ostrich fern produces a true fiddlehead.
Plant Ostrich ferns in a moist shady place. Dig a hole deep enough for the roots to spread and position the crown just above ground level. Ostrich ferns are slow to take hold as they put most of their energy into strengthening their root system the first year. They spread both by their root system and spores under their fronds.
Even though the Ostrich fern has the least toxins of all the ferns, Ostrich fern fiddleheads still need to be boiled or steamed for fifteen minutes before eating. To my palate, they taste an awful lot like asparagus. Herbalists list them as having medicinal qualities including easing back pain.
Most intriguing is their history. They are ancient plants covering the earth before the dinosaurs when they grew to massive heights. They predate flowering plants. They survived extinction after extinction.
Ferns in the yard and as houseplants are seeing a revival of interest partially because of their survival powers. In a time of political and climate upheaval, the Ostrich and other ferns symbolize stability, longevity and ancient roots.
Planting a few Ostrich ferns now, means your own fiddleheads in the spring. Harvest them when they are less than 6 inches high and still tightly furled. And then enjoy the elegant fronds from spring, through summer and into the fall.