***First of all, I am no wilderness expert nor am I a professional forager, so I would highly recommend taking a foraging or wild edibles workshop through an expert before you decide to wander into the forest and chew on some plants. [Then again, I do recommend you wander into the forest for a little adventure and check out what plants are in your area… maybe just don’t chew on them till you get some expert guidance!]***
Canada’s forests and fields offer a stunning variety of edible plants and mushrooms. However, many are also inedible or even poisonous (see above recommendation). There are a few species of edibles that I’ve had success with (fiddleheads, nettles, sorrel, leeks), so for now, I’m sticking to those (though, I’m enrolled in a foraging workshop myself, with Amber @ The Wild Garden, so stay tuned!)
Fiddleheads are relatively easy to find – with their bright green stems shooting out from beneath the dry leafy brown forest floor. With a taste very similar to asparagus, these beautiful baby fern sprouts are very popular in our house. They can be steamed, boiled, sautéed, just as you would with asparagus. You can find them at any of the local Ottawa area farmers’ markets right now, generally costing about $8-10 per pound… or, if you learn how to forage your own… they’re free 🙂
WHEN Fiddlehead season generally goes from April through early to mid-May.
WHERE Fiddleheads tend to grow on shaded forest floors, or near river banks. Edible plant foraging is permitted on most public land in Ontario; however, be sure to consider whether land is designated as First Nations territory and request permission from the local Native communities, if necessary. As for private property – make sure you ask permission if it’s not your land!
WHAT There are a few types of edible ferns, but the most commonly consumed type is the Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). These ferns have bright green, fairly thick, smooth stems with the classic spiraling fiddleheads at the tips. They tend to have a small amount of brown feathery husks, mostly on the fiddlehead portion, but shouldn’t look fuzzy or scaly like a number of other fern species. Another distinguishing feature is the deeply grooved underside of the stem.
WHY Fiddleheads are loaded with vitamins C and A, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, fibre, antioxidants and essential fatty acids. That’s right – they are a fantastic vegetable-source of omega-3 fatty acids! Plus, since they’re wild, they’ve grown in their natural habitat/soil and haven’t been sprayed with any pesticides. Oh, and did I mention they’re local, delicious and free?!?!
“..it appears that ostrich fern tissue may have the most complete fatty acid compliment of any edible green plant.” — Delong, et al. Canadian Journal of Plant Science (2013)
HOW – TO HARVEST / PREP Break off the fiddleheads a few inches below the tops. One of the things I’ve learned in my reading and exploring is that it’s actually kind of wasteful to leave a big piece of stem behind – the stems are just as edible as the heads, but people tend to harvest/use just the heads… somewhat similar to asparagus, I suppose. Once you have your crop, pick off as much of the brown husks as you can, or simply give the fiddleheads a good shake and much of it will fall off on its own. Rinse the fiddleheads thoroughly in cold water.
HOW – TO COOK Fiddleheads need to be boiled or steamed before use. Health Canada recommends boiling for 15 minutes or steaming for 10-12 minutes. From this point, you can eat as is (with a taste resembling asparagus) or add them to quiche, pizza, salad, soup.
HOW – TO STORE Like anything, fiddledeads are tastiest when eaten fresh from the forest (after the necessary prep and cooking, of course), but if you won’t be consuming them right away, be sure to store them properly so that they don’t go to waste. Fiddleheads can be stored raw in the fridge, in a dish of water (as you would with asparagus), for up to a week. Be sure to re-rinse and boil or steam appropriately before use. Health Canada also has freezing recommendations for later use.
A FEW CAUTIONS
Always be sure you know what you’re eating. If you can’t positively identify it, find a reliable book or consult an expert (see above for workshops).
Never eat them raw.
Go easy! Delicious as they are, since they are wild and so incredibly nutrient-dense, it’s generally advisable to stick to smaller portions at first to see how your guts tolerate them.
Do not over-pick! Leave some for others 🙂 It’s a pretty cool thing that these nutritious little bundles just keep growing year after year without the need for any weeding, commercial fertilizers, or maintenance of any kind! Just let them do their thing. As a general rule, take only what you will use and use whatever you take!
The unique fatty acid and antioxidant composition of ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) fiddleheads. John Delong, D Mark Hodges, Robert Prange, Charles Forney, Peter Toivenon, M Conny Bishop, Michele Elliot, Michael Jordan. Canadian Journal of Plant Science, 2011, 91(5): 919-930, 10.4141/cjps2010-042 (NRC Research Press)
The influence of cold water storage on fatty acids, antioxidant content and activity, and microbial load in ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopreris) fiddleheads. John Delong, D Mark Hodges, Robert Prange, Charles Forney, Lihua Fan, M Conny Bishop, Michele Elliot, Michael Jordan, Craig Doucette. Canadian Journal of Plant Science, 2013, 93(4): 683-697, 10.4141/cjps2012-165 (NRC Research Press)