This is the true fiddlehead fern, though in early spring most fern fronds resemble the head of a fiddle. Considered a delicacy and heavily harvested as a cooking vegetable in New Brunswick, fiddlehead collecting has far less history on Prince Edward Island.
One of our most beautiful ferns, the large, lush ostrich fern grows from a fibrous clump that gets larger every year. The sterile fern fronds emerge as tightly curled fiddleheads, deep green with a brown, papery covering. The rich green and the shiny brown covering, combined with the large clump, offer easy identification in the spring. Spores of the Ostrich fern are born on a separate, dark brown frond. Only the sensitive fern has a similar-coloured spore frond, though the shapes are quite different. The fully developed fronds, from 90-120 cm (3-5′) high, taper very quickly at the tip and quite slowly at the base, making them appear top heavy.
In ideal conditions along shaded streams, ostrich ferns form thick mats. They thrive in moist flood plains with the coolness and high humidity associated with canopied streams.
While these ferns can be grown from spores, the easiest way is to find some that are growing in a wet ditch or a property where you have permission from the owner to dig. In early May, on a wet day when the plants are just starting to poke out their fiddleheads, transplant a few to pots. Be patient and always be thinking about how you are treating the site from where you’re digging. One of the most important things about ostrich fern propagation is that they spread by rhizomes, so that if you plant one, in a few years it will multiply. Then you can just keep moving the younger plants and soon you’ll have as many as you need.
While some ferns such as the bracken fern produce toxic fiddleheads, the ostrich fern is a culinary delight. As the stems begin to elongate and the fiddleheads are still tightly closed, use a sharp knife to cut off a few individual fronds from plants. It is best to keep the cut heads cool. To remove the husks, soak the heads in a spaghetti pot with strainer or some combination of strainer and pot. Gently rub the husks off with your hands and rinse fiddleheads until clean. To cook, boil for 10 minutes or steam for 20 minutes and eat as is or with butter and lemon. There are unconfirmed reports of people getting ill from eating raw or undercooked fiddleheads. The University of Maine has an excellent web page on fiddleheads, including lots of recipes.
Planting along streams is a good idea if proper conditions exist. Ostrich ferns appreciate high humidity and will do well in a flood plain with a high canopy of trees. They seem intolerant of dry conditions if there is any competition, such as from grasses, but grow well if mulched to keep down other competitors for scarce moisture. Scatter them throughout an area – if conditions are right, they will soon spread.