On April 14, the University of Maine and the University of New Hampshire kicked off a six-part series on spring gardening with a lecture on harvesting fiddleheads. The lecture was moderated by Donna Coffin and Lynn Holland from UMaine. The event was presented by Dave Fuller, a researcher through the UMaine Cooperative Extension and non-timber forest products professional, and Mihku Paul, a resident of Old Town and Wabanaki native.
Fiddleheads are the edible sprouts of Ostrich Ferns, which are native to most of the Northern United States and Canada. They have a great cultural significance in Maine and some regions of Canada. The cultural significance of the fiddlehead stems from the indigenous cultures of these regions. Paul spoke to the importance of the “mahsosi,” which is the Penobscot word for the fern sprouts, in the Wabanaki tradition.
The fiddleheads are rich in fiber, as well as vitamins C and A, and are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. They sprout in late April or early May, when the ice has melted and the river recedes to expose the dormant crowns of the ferns, leaving them to sprout for around a week. Paul explained that this time was when her family would harvest the fiddleheads. Historically, fiddleheads are a key seasonal crop to the Wabanaki people and their harvest is a culturally significant activity.
“Fiddleheads are an important contribution from Wabanaki people to the foods and history of Maine and the Maritimes,” Paul said. “As you enjoy your spring fiddleheads, please remember the Indigenous people who brought this amazing wild food to you.”
After Paul’s introduction to the historical and cultural significance of the fiddleheads, the discussion turned to Fuller, who spoke about how to safely identify, harvest and cook the crop.
Fuller expanded upon the reasons for consuming fiddleheads, explaining that they are rich in vitamins and nutrients, and high in fiber and carbohydrates.
The fiddleheads native to Maine are Ostrich Fern fiddleheads, also known as croziers, or Matteuccia struthiopteris. They are a perennial plant and are shaped similarly to ostrich feathers when fully grown, as they taper at both the top and bottom. Fuller showed images of the ferns in different stages of their growth, before explaining how to easily identify the fiddleheads.
There are three key components to identifying the Ostrich Fern fiddlehead. You can identify them firstly by their bright green color, second, by their smooth stems and lastly by the deep u-shaped groove which runs along the inside of the stem. Fuller explained that they usually are ready to harvest when other spring plants begin to bloom.
Fuller then described how to properly harvest the fiddleheads in a way which is not harmful to the environment. Fiddlehead crowns with fewer than four fiddleheads should be left alone to ensure future growth. When harvesting, Fuller explained that it is important to tread lightly around areas so as to not disturb the growth of other plant life, and to use a clean container and wash the fiddleheads thoroughly in tap water.
After harvesting the fiddleheads, there are two safe methods for cooking them. Fiddleheads have a high risk of causing foodborne illnesses if not properly prepared. The two tried and true methods, Fuller says, are boiling and steaming. The first method, boiling, requires bringing a pot of water to a rolling boil, before adding the fiddleheads and cooking them for at least 15 minutes. To steam them, fiddleheads should be cooked for around 10-12 minutes. After the fiddleheads have been properly boiled or steamed, they can be added to a variety of dishes including stir-fry, salads or even pizza.
Fuller also talked about the process of getting permission to harvest fiddleheads. On private property, it is best to ask permission through the local town hall offices, as it is illegal to harvest on private lands without a permit. On public lands, there is no permit required to harvest fiddleheads.
At the end of the presentation, Fuller explained how to properly plant fiddleheads in home gardens. He explained that a suitable habitat for the plants are usually in areas that have high moisture retention and not near softwood trees or oaks. He also explained that they are best planted in spring, that they should be planted at the same depth as they are in their natural habitat and can be harvested after two to three years.
The next event in the gardening series is a seminar over weed management, taking place on April 28. Registration is available through the UMaine and UNH cooperative extension webpage.