Foraging for Fiddlehead Ferns

Foraging for Fiddlehead Ferns
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by guest blogger Tim Mountz of Happy Cat Farm

As a farmer I revel in spring, with its quick weather changes, cracking buds, chorus of flowers, and dramatic transformation of landscape. In spring we farmers return to the fields to till the soil, but we also return to the woods to forage.

Hunting for ramps and the first early morel mushrooms, with the smell of fresh soil on our hands, we grab our baskets and head for the deep woods where it is wet and shady.

Lately, I've been hunting for fiddlehead ferns. The species I'm looking for are called ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), and cinnamon fern (Osmunda, also called cinnamomea). Both are native ferns and grow in great abundance here in southeastern Pennsylvania. In the spring they erupt out of the soil in compressed spirals that look like, well, fiddleheads. Like us, they've been waiting for the days to get warmer, so they can unfold, stretch for the sun, and bask in fresh air perfumed by daffodils and magnolias.

The hunt usually beings on a cool afternoon just after the first warm rain, the kind that trout fisherman know brings the first fish to the surface. Friends will start talking around town or just show up at the house. We meet up early, clean our European knives, shoulder our well-worn wicker baskets, and talk about the weather and whether we will find morel mushrooms along the way.

The ostrich ferns are the easiest to find, and the most abundant. Their dark brown stumps are about 5 inches tall and look kind of like a pineapple, with last year's frond stems still hanging on. You can also look for the fertile fronds, which will be persistent all winter and well into the growing season (see photo).

The fiddleheads are thick and dark green as they emerge from the stumps (see photo). We pick the spirals before they've unfolded, give them a bit of a soak when we get home to get rid of any insects, and then lightly steam them, add some butter and good sea salt, and it's spring tonic love land for your palate.

If plucking plants from the forest seems a little too earthy for you, then you can plant a fiddlehead in a container and keep it close to home. Fiddles will emerge out of the soil in a container faster than they will out of the ground. What a great way to celebrate spring and know where your food is coming from!

Happy hunting.

Tim and his wife Amy own Happy Cat Farm, an organic farm and lifestyle brand located just outside of Kennett Square, PA.

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