Fiddlehead Ferns & Forests

My fascination with fiddleheads and ferns began around the time I was creating my Fiddlesticks story CD, which is about slowing down and taking time to see and appreciate God’s creative work through nature. Learn more about the CD here. Now, as I consider options for shade-tolerant plants to include in the ground cover layer of our food forest garden, I have been taking time to research ferns more extensively. Here is what I now know:

A few fern species are edible during their fiddlehead stage, however, most species are toxic. Fiddleheads are the tightly coiled tender green tips that unfurl in the spring to become fern fronds. Fiddleheads are so named because they resemble the scrolled end of fiddle or violin. The time for foraging them is brief. Wait too long, and the fiddleheads will have already opened into the feathery fronds of mature ferns, and they will be inedible. As ferns mature, they become more toxic.

Back cover and disk art for Fiddlesticks Story CD (2011)

The fiddleheads of the Ostrich Fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, are edible. Their bright green coils are covered with thin, brown, papery scales, which will fall away as the frond unfurls. Ostrich Ferns are also distinguished by a deep U-shaped groove in the inside stem. Ostrich Fern fiddleheads should be well-rinsed with cold water and fully cooked before adding them to salads and other dishes. In fact, it is best to blanch fiddleheads in boiled water even before sautéing or cooking in other preparations.

Ostrich Fern fiddleheads are prized for their crunchy texture and delicate flavor, which is somewhere in the range of asparagus, broccoli and spinach. Nutritionally, fiddleheads contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, iron, manganese and copper.

I started a small fern nursery, with specimens I should be able to propagate and transplant to other areas of our property. Propagation is the process of using one or more plants make more plants of its kind. To establish the nursery, I sheet mulched a shady area outside our kitchen window, and I splurged on the purchase of two mature Ostrich Ferns at a local garden center.

The ferns beautify the area, however, there was still a lot of empty space around them, and my husband suggested buying and planting five more. I would love to, however, it would be more costly. Instead, I have chosen to be patient; I will wait and order some ferns online in the early spring. bThose plants will be smaller and less developed, but far less costly.

Alternatively, I could be even more patient and wait for my two ferns to self-propagate naturally. Ferns self-propagate in two ways. They can propagate sexually by reproducing and scattering spores. Not seeds, but spores. For a gardener to create the right conditions for fern spores to germinate and develop into a new fern takes a lot of patience and care. This is, however, the best way to propagate large numbers of new ferns.

Ferns can also propagate asexually, also known as vegetative propagation. Most ferns, after they grow from spores, will begin to spread by means of their creeping rhizomes, the root system that spreads underground. Over time one plant can grow into a colony. For gardeners, vegetative propagation is as easy as physically dividing a fern pant in half, carefully separating clumps of roots and replanting them. This method is easier than growing ferns from spores. Unlike with spore propagation, each new plant will be a clone, genetically identical to the original plant.

Through the vegetative method, gardeners can speed along the propagation of many perennial species. Berry plants can be propagated by cutting shoots and treating them to grow roots. By learning vegetative propagation skills, gardeners can dramatically increase their food forest abundance.

I have plenty of time to experiment with fern propagation, since fruit trees will require some years to grow. The trees will need to grow big enough to be able to produce sufficient shade and moisture to support a flourishing ground cover of ferns.

Two weeks ago, I walked the property of a local fruit grower, Narrow Lane Orchard, which is a family-owned farm. I have been buying Narrow Lane Orchard fruit at my local farmer’s market for a few years now, and finally took the time to go visit the orchard, which is only five miles away from our house. It has taken me far too long to get around to doing this.

About this orchard… back in 2004 Stephen and Sharon Grenier purchased Narrow Lane Orchard to save the 30 acre farm from being developed into residential homes. Expanding the farm’s diversity of trees, shrubs and vines, the Greniers have grown more than 20 varieties of apples, peaches, nectarines, blackberries, blueberries and kiwi berries.

The orchard itself is surrounded by 8-foot tall deer fencing to protect the trees. Visitors enter the orchard through a gate situated next to the orchard’s farm stand. My favorite feature of the farm is the one-mile Nature Trail that winds around through the woods surrounding the orchard and outside the fencing. Here I saw lush green ferns growing everywhere. I have never seen so many ferns in all my life. I felt as if I was walking through a prehistoric forest. This landscape was a clear testament to the fern’s ability to self-propagate, and it was an indication that I could indeed grow ferns beneath the tree canopy on our property.

While researching ferns, I discovered they are one of the oldest groups of plants on Earth, with a fossil record dating back almost 400 million years. Back in the time of the dinosaurs, ferns were actually the main food source for the herbivorous sauropods, the largest animals ever to walk the earth. Ferns also played a vital role in plant evolution, specifically in the development of vascular tissue. Without the development of plant vascular tissue, we would not have berry bushes and fruit trees.

The fern category of plants, due to its long-lived presence on earth, is highly diverse, having evolved into the 10,500 living species that inhabit the earth today. Ferns tend to grow in moist, shady areas among the trees of the forest, which provide the ferns with protection from wind, over exposure to sunlight, and excess heat from the sun. Some species, however, can grow in desert climates.

Within a forest community, ferns have their own important ecological roles. They provide shelter, shade and food to small animals. Bracken ferns are eaten in the fiddlehead stage in the springtime by white-tailed deer and eastern cottontail rabbits with little consequence. As these fern grows into adults, however, their fronds begin to produce toxins, and they become unpalatable. At the same time, insects like grasshoppers and snails can eat adult ferns on a regular basis, despite the increased toxicity. Generally, plants produce toxins as a defensive measure, so they can grow and propagate.

One final fern fact, that bares further research, is their ability to uptake heavy metals from the soil. They can be planted to heal contaminated environments. I think that’s very cool!

Learn more about fern propagation.

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