Fiddlehead ferns, or ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris), grow in moist and sandy soils in most of the northeastern and central United States and Canada, as well as in Europe and much of Asia. These ferns are prized as a spring delicacy by fiddleheaders, whose cars can be seen pulled to the side of the road around the first of May, when the coiled, edible shoots emerge. The also make a beautiful addition to the shady garden.
Locate emerging ferns around the end of April or beginning of May. Look in sandy, moist areas adjacent to rivers and streams, particularly where willows and white ash grow.
Examine emerging fern shoots; observing a brown, papery covering on the shoots identifies the plants as ostrich ferns, as other types of similar ferns have white fuzzy coatings or are simply shiny green.
Observe full-grown ferns in mid-summer. Examine the base of the fronds: fiddlehead ferns grow from distinct, crown-like clumps, sending runners under the soil to start new clumps. Look at the shape of a single frond: it tapers outward gently from the base at the ground to about four-fifths of the length of the frond, then tapers back in steeply to the tip in the characteristic "ostrich feather" shape that gives the fern its name.
Check the back of the frond with a magnifying glass: an ostrich fern has no spores on the green fronds, which are sterile. Look at the front of the main leaf stem that runs up each frond; a fiddlehead fern has a deep groove running up the stem.
Return to the ferns in early winter, before heavy snowfall. Look for a single, straight stiff spike rising from most of the fern clumps, bearing a deep brown or black spore head, a typical characteristic of the fiddlehead fern.