Range: The range of ostrich fern in Canada spans the country from east to west and grows almost as far north as there are trees growing. The overall range in North America is from Alaska down to northern California.
Habitat: This fern is found growing in abundance in shaded river bottom forests and along the banks of rivers and streams. These ferns can also be found growing, in less abundance, in rich wooded sites near ponds and ravines.
Parts of plant used: The new spring shoots, called the fiddlehead, can be harvested, cooked and eaten as a delicious spring vegetable.
When people refer to “fiddleheads” they are usually referring to spring shoots of ostrich fern. All ferns go through the fiddlehead stage, but not all fiddleheads are edible. It is important to be sure about the species of fiddlehead before harvesting it and to prepare it properly.
The fiddleheads of ostrich fern are a highly regarded spring vegetable. Ostrich fern is deciduous and grows in a rosette formation of five to nine fronds that make a funnel shape. The fronds can grow as long as two meters in length. There are two types of fronds: the large leafy infertile green fronds and the much smaller brown fertile fronds. These smaller fertile fronds are found growing in the centre of the rosette.
Ostrich fern can cover large areas of land and thus can be harvested at a large-scale level. That being said, sustainable harvesting practices should be employed so not to over harvest a single stand of ostrich ferns. When harvesting you should not take all of the fiddleheads from one rosette, and you should only harvest once per season from each plant so as not to overstress the plant.
Ostrich fern fiddleheads have a distinct u-shaped groove running the length of the top of the fiddlehead and stalk. The stem of the fiddlehead is bare and smooth. When harvesting fiddleheads they should be snapped off at about 30–60 centimetres in length.
Harvesting the curled top of the fern along with the smooth stalk yields much more food than collecting only the curled tops alone. The lower quarter of the stalk is usually too tough to harvest and eat. Fiddleheads should be cooked by steaming, sautéing or boiling, but can be eaten raw in moderation.
Note from the author: I have always been taught to respect plants and to be sure not to harvest too much from one single plant. There are many other animals that rely on the food and medicine that plants provide. It is also extremely important to go out harvesting with someone who is confident with plant identification and who can help to harvest and prepare the plants in a safe and responsible way.