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How to Identify Fiddlehead Ferns

By Cindy Hill ; Updated September 21, 2017

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.

 

Things You Will Need

  • Magnifying glass

Tips

  • Fiddlehead ferns transplant well from the wild to moist, shady garden soil. Dig whole clumps with about a 1-foot in diameter root ball, but be sure to obtain landowner's permission before doing so.
  • Wear sturdy close-toed shoes--preferably waterproof boots--and long pants when going to identify fiddlehead ferns; they prefer moist locations where the ground can be quite mucky.

Warnings

  • Always consult an appropriate field guide or knowledgeable botanist before picking or consuming any wild plant.
  • Exercise extreme caution near swift-moving, high rivers and streams in the early spring fiddleheading season.

About the Author

 

A freelance writer since 1978 and attorney since 1981, Cindy Hill has won awards for articles on organic agriculture and wild foods, and has published widely in the areas of law, public policy, local foods and gardening. She holds a B.A. in political science from State University of New York and a Master of Environmental Law and a J.D. from Vermont Law School.