Behold! The Island of the Ostriches!
Ostrich ferns, that is–the only edible fern in North America. Daphne and I set off into the woods for a spring day of wild food gathering, trekking from the high meadows to the woodlands of ancient hardwoods, to the low country where flow the brooks. We were looking for everything from early season mushrooms to curly dock. But for us the growing season is only just starting, and many things were not yet up. Give it another week or two. But it was in the heart of the Hollow–warmer and more moderate in temperature–that we found an abundance of young ostrich ferns growing on deep-woods islands in the mountain brooks. Ostrich ferns especially like to grow near clear, clean, flowing water, in sandy soil, and so are best found near brooks and small rivers. And, like most ostrich hunters, we keep the locations of our ferns secret, for they grow from perennial crowns (just like asparagus) and will reappear to be enjoyed year after year, but they are susceptible to over harvesting. If too many are taken, the crowns will weaken and possibly die.
The ostrich fern is more commonly known by the misleading name: the fiddlehead fern. This poor choice of names has caused, over the years, many people to believe that any fern in the fiddlehead stage is edible, a misconception that has led to many mild to moderate cases of poisoning when unwitting persons dined on other fern species. You see, many ferns make fiddleheads when their fronds first emerge as shoots, including the toxic and more common cinnamon and interrupted ferns. (Which, by the way, tend to be found away from flowing water and in all kinds of soil.) But only the ostrich fern is edible.
But it’s easy to tell toxic ferns from ostrich ferns. So easy, in fact, that no one should ever get it wrong. Ostrich ferns have a loose, papery, easily detached brown scale on either side of the fiddlehead, and a distinctive celery-like groove that runs the length of the stalk. No other fern has these features, and the groove is especially telling; it is deep and pronounced and cannot be missed or mistaken. Also, the stalk is smooth; there is no white or cinnamon hair on the stalk or fiddlehead. Sometimes ostrich ferns also have a fine white powder up and down the stalk.
Any fern with white or cinnamon hued hair or lacking the groove should be avoided. Some toxic ferns are flat on the inner portion of the stalk, or have a very shallow groove. It is not enough. To be an ostrich fern, the groove must be deep. Again, think celery. I suggest anyone who wants to forage for ostrich ferns buy a few fiddleheads at a local farmer’s market or grocery and observe them. Many will still bear the brown scales and all will have the groove.
Some people think the fiddlehead (the curling top) is the best part to eat, but the nutrition is actually mostly in the stalk, and the whole shoot, from fern crown at ground level to the curled up leaves at the top, is good. In fact, so long as the stalk remains pliant and stretchy (even if unfurled), it is still edible, and I have gathered many partially unfurled ostrich fern fronds over the years. But once a stalk is fully unfurled, leave it. Not only is it bitter at that point, but the fern’s crown (the perennial root) needs those leaves to make energy to grow next year’s crop.
Ostrich ferns are among the first wild foods to appear in spring, and will send up new shoots in our region from the beginning of May till as late as June. Other areas undoubtedly have earlier growing and harvesting seasons.
When harvesting ostrich ferns, always remember to walk carefully and avoid stepping on the perennial crowns from which they emerge. The ostrich fern crown grows above ground and is vulnerable to damage. If stepped on, it may die.
Also, harvest with care. Either break the shoots off so you don’t damage the crowns, or cut them with a sharp knife an inch over the crown. Never harvest more than half the shoots from a crown so that it can produce energy for itself through the summer. The crowns are long lived perennials and if you are careful with them, they will not only provide bountiful harvests year after year, but they will spread from runners underground and the colony will get bigger as long as there is appropriate well-drained sandy ground.
If you live in the northeast, take a moment to enjoy Nature’s friendly ostrich fern. It’s good to see the brooks and little rivers of their habitat, good for the soul to hear the water flow, and the ostrich fern is an unrivaled natural source of nutrition and taste. Indeed, they are much like asparagus with a little more character. But be sure never to over harvest. Take only a few shoots from each crown, and year after year, the ostrich ferns will reappear where you found them.