Fiddleheads are one of the first foragable plants of spring in Edmonton! I love their really cute name coming from the curled leaves that look like the scrolls of fiddles. Fiddleheads come from the ostrich fern and, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia, are the only native Canadian plant that has achieved commercial success as a vegetable! They are super delicious and taste like a very mild asparagus.
The ostrich fern can be found in parts of every province and territory. In doing our research for this post, I saw lots of people saying on outdoors forums and reddit that fiddleheads can’t grow in Alberta because of our climate. One of our passion projects is to combat myths about growing on the prairies; good things grow here! You can easily find ostrich ferns around Edmonton and area and I’ve seen kilometres and kilometres of them in Northern Alberta.
Fiddleheads come up in the spring and can be picked anywhere from April to late May in Alberta. This year it seemed like their prime was maybe just after May Long Weekend. They have a narrow window to be picked, so you have to be paying attention. They tend to grow in shaded areas with heavy woods near lakes and streams. I’ve noticed that the more shaded the area, the later into the season you can find them. We have had no trouble finding huge patches of them just west of Edmonton. We also grow them in our urban orchard as perennials and easily with good success.
As with any foraging, there are a few safety and environmental responsibilities to take into account. Not all ferns are edible and some are toxic. Braken ferns are toxic although they are fairly easy to identify as they have a fuzzy coating. Fiddlehead ferns are smooth, bright green and have a u shaped groove on the stem with a brown husk. I look for a few that are more unfurled and then begin checking the ground. You can often find the fiddleheads when you look closer, hiding under the leaves and debris on the forest floor.
Once the ferns are unfurled they will be too bitter and fibrous. You want to pick them while they are tightly coiled. Each plant will have 4-6 fronds (separate stems) and I always try to leave half of those. You can easily break off the curled portion with just your fingers. Make sure you are picking the ferns in an area where you have permission and you only take what you need.
There are some food safety issues with fiddleheads if they are not cleaned, prepared and stored properly. Clean off as much of the brown husk as you can. Wash the fiddleheads in cold water 3 or 4 times. Fiddleheads need to be cooked or steamed before being used in other ways like sautéing or soups. Steaming them for 10-12 minutes is my favourite because they don’t get overcooked and retain their bright green colour. You can read Health Canada’s tips for food safety for fiddleheads on their website.
Once you’ve steamed the fiddleheads, they are ready to be prepared. I’ve heard that they make amazing pickles, but I haven’t taken them that far yet. You can find recipes online, but I just like to sauté them in a simple way. This time, I cooked some garlic in sesame oil, added the fiddleheads and some soya sauce, and sautéed them until they were slightly browned. Then I tossed them with sesame seeds.
Pair with a cocktail, maybe some wild rice, and you’ve get a fancy spring meal!