Oh, Spring. . . with your seemingly relentless rainy days, followed by the occasional gloriously sunny day (or merely just an afternoon!). I adore you, Spring, yet I feel very challenged by you at the same time! Can anyone else relate??
One thing is for sure though, I’m feeling extremely grateful for the abundance of delicious wild edibles that are currently gracing the PNW landscape courtesy of these warmer temperatures and frequent Spring showers. Each day when I wander the woods I stumble upon newly sprouted Spring shoots and freshly flowering plants that I hadn’t noticed the day before. The forest is waking up right before our very eyes during this magical time of year, and I’m loving it!
Just yesterday I felt excitement well up from within me as I came across some Lady Fern fiddleheads (the furled fronds of the young fern shoots), which are a delicious Spring edible. There are quite a few species of ferns here in the Pacific Northwest, the most common being the incredibly abundant Sword Fern. Less numerous (though far from rare) are Bracken Fern, Lady Fern, Licorice Fern, Spiny Wood Fern, Deer Fern, and my personal favorite, the Maidenhair Fern. Amongst these species, the fiddleheads of the Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina) are most appropriate for eating. Although the fiddleheads of Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum) have been enjoyed by PNW indigenous groups as well as the people of Korea, Japan, and parts of China for ages, many argue that carcinogenic ptalquiloside, which is highly present in this fern species, should be avoided. Check out this interesting read on the topic for more information.
Though I have yet to experiment with preparing and eating Bracken Fern fiddleheads myself, I personally would avoid eating them in mass quantities based on what the research says (though consuming them just a few times each Spring would probably cause little harm). Instead, I turn to Lady Ferns for my fiddlehead fix, as they’re not nearly as controversial as Bracken, pose no known health risks, and are quite tasty. Since they're popping up in abundance here in the PNW these days, let’s indulge in these delicious succulent delicacies (for free!) before they fully unfurl!
First, make sure you've positively identified Lady Fern before you harvest the fiddleheads. I’m finding lots of Lady Ferns growing along creek beds, swamps, gullies, and various moist clearings throughout the forest. Of course, it’s easier to identify the ferns once they've fully unfurled later on in the season. Luckily, right now some Lady Ferns are sporting shoots that have fully unfurled growing alongside shoots that are still immature and in fiddlehead form, so you can look to the mature fronds for identification purposes and pick the fiddlehead shoots for eating. This handy PDF from the folks at the Starflower Foundation can help you with Lady Fern identification.
If you’re still having a hard time identifying Lady Fern fiddleheads, you can A) Contact me or Pat and we can help you out in person, or B) Wait until Summer to identify various fully mature Lady Ferns using a field guide or with the help of a local naturalist, then take note of the exact locations of the plants and return to those same spots early next Spring for fiddlehead harvesting.
Once you’re clear on your Lady Fern identification, harvest the fiddleheads that are still tightly furled, snipping them an inch or two below the coil. It’s best to harvest only a few coils from each plant in order to ensure the longevity of the rest of the plant into its full maturity.
After harvesting, give the fiddleheads a nice wash in a few changes of water to remove as much brown papery chaff and dirt as possible. The cleaned fiddleheads are best when blanched or cooked very thoroughly before consuming (avoiding eating them raw). I like to enjoy Lady Fern fiddleheads in stir-fries and soups, and I bet they would make an awesome addition to a quiche! Mmmm…the possibilities!
If you’re feeling experimental, why not try this Spicy Refrigerator Pickled Fiddleheads recipe? I learned how to make this from my Ethnobotany mentor Lindsey Huettman- check out her amazing programs!
Spicy Refrigerator Pickled Fiddleheads
-1 pint of cleaned, freshly harvested Lady Fern Fiddleheads
-1 Tbs Mustard Seeds
-1 tsp Dill
-1 tsp Coriander
-1 tsp Black Peppercorns
-1 tsp Crushed Red Pepper
-2 peeled garlic cloves
-3/4 cup Apple Cider Vinegar
Step 1- Blanch clean fiddleheads in a pot of rapidly boiling salted water for 2 minutes. Drain the fiddleheads and quickly immerse them in cold water.
Step 2- Bring the vinegar, 3/4 cup of water and 1/2 tsp sea salt to a simmer in a small pot. Stir until salt is thoroughly dissolved.
Step 3- While brine is simmering, fill a clean pint-sized wide mouth mason jar with peppercorns, spices and garlic cloves. Pack the jar with the blanched fiddleheads.
Step 4- Pour brine mixture into the mason jar, covering the fiddleheads entirely.
Step 5- Screw lid tightly on jar and let sit for 24 hrs.
Step 6- Refrigerate the pickled fiddleheads for at least 6 weeks before opening, as they will be at peak flavor by then. Will last for up to 3 months in refrigerator. Enjoy!