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Fiddlehead ferns nutrition facts

Fiddlehead ferns are young, tender, tightly furled new-growth shoots of fern family plant, usually of ostrich fern. The curly ferns are so named after their unique resemblance to fiddle (violin) head. These young eruptions of fiddlehead fronds are very popular among the inhabitants of Maine, Vermont in the US, and New Brunswick provinces in Canada where their short season in later part of spring attracts many food enthusiasts.

Ostrich variety fern belongs to the unique flowerless plant species Onocleaceae, a small family of terrestrial ferns. Scientific name: Matteuccia struthioreris.



Fiddlehead-ferns
Fresh fiddlehead fronds.
Photo courtesy: GlennFleishman.

Ostrich ferns are the most common edible fiddle-ferns found in the North America. The fern is a clump forming (like an ostrich plume), deciduous plant, which typically grows in well-drained, moisture rich shady environments. During each spring season, several fiddlehead fronds erupt during spring all along the length of root (rhizome) spread of big fern plant. Their harvesting season is very short, and should be done before the fronds unfurl.

Each fiddlehead is a tightly curled, deep green stalk measuring about 4 cm in diameter, reaching to the height of about 10-12 cm off the ground. Its tender shoots are covered with brown scales, which have to be scraped off before being used in cooking. Young and tender fronds taste similar to that of asparagus, or green beans with crunchy texture of their own.

Vegetable fern (Diplazium esculentum), known locally as lungru, are found in the hilly areas of North India and Nepal eaten as local delicacy. Lungru season lasts very briefly from May until June.


Health benefits of fiddlehead ferns

  • Fiddlehead ferns are unique by their appearance, taste, and nutrition profile. The curly young shoots carry just 34 calories per 100 g. Nonetheless; their high-quality plant-nutrition profile consists of health benefiting antioxidants, vitamins, and omega-3, omega-6 essential fatty acids.

  • Fresh fronds are very high in antioxidant vitamin-A, and carotenes. 100 g of fiddleheads hold 3617 IU of or 120% of recommended daily requirements of vitamin-A. Vitamin A is a powerful natural anti-oxidant and is required by the body for maintaining integrity of skin and mucusa. It is also an essential vitamin for vision. Research studies suggest that natural foods rich in vitamin A help the body protects against lung and oral cavity cancers.

  • They are an excellent source of many natural poly-phenolic flavonoid compounds such as a and ß-carotenes. Carotenes convert into vitamin A inside the body.

  • Their unique sweet taste comes from their richness in vitamin C. 100 g of fresh fronds contains 26.6 mg or 44% of daily-required levels. Vitamin C is a moderately potential water soluble anti-oxidant. Together with flavonoid compound like carotenes, it helps scavenge harmful free radicals, and offer protection from cancers, inflammation, and viral cough and cold.

  • Fern shoots are a very good source of minerals and electrolytes, especially potassium, iron, manganese, and copper. 100 g of fresh shoots contains 370 mg or 7% of daily-required levels of potassium. Potassium is a heart friendly electrolyte, which helps reduces blood pressure and heart rate by countering sodium effects.

  • Further, they contain small to moderate levels of some of the valuable B-complex group of vitamins such as niacin, riboflavin, and thiamin.



Selection and storage

Fresh fiddlehead ferns available in selective farmer markets from April to June. While choosing fiddleheads look for deep or bright green, firm, tightly coiled ferns. Do not buy unfurled and bigger ferns as they are tough and unappetizing. The scales are bitter and need to be removed before used in cooking.

Fiddlehead ferns should be used as they are fresh, otherwise, store them wrapped in plastic paper and place inside the refrigerator set at high relative humidity where they stay fresh for 2-3 days.


Preparation and serving methods

Before cooking, remove any brown outer scales using a brush or cloth. Trim stem-end upto the base of curly crozier. Wash them in cold water thoroughly. They are then boiled in salted water for 1-2 minutes. Drain and discard the water. The process may be repeated for two to three times to remove their bitterness. Ostrich ferns are the only proven varieties free from any cancer-causing bitter compounds, and generally recommended varieties in the North America.

Fresh ferns are sought after in many parts of the American world. They employed in recipes in a similar way like asparagus or green beans, to make perfect side dish.

Here are some serving tips:

fiddlehead fern and salmon recipe
Fiddlehead ferns and salmon recipe.
Photo courtesy: SodexoUSA
  • Cooked ferns aquire chewy texture. Fresh ferns in general are treated just like asparagus in cooking. Overcooking makes them soft and mushy. They can be steamed, sautéed, stir-fried, or mixed with vegetables, beans, or seafood.

  • They served crisp tossed with melted butter and seasoned with salt and pepper.

  • In Himalayan region of India, a different variety vegetable fern is found at high altitude, popular locally as lungru. The young tender fronds are eaten in salads, stews, stir-fries, and used to prepare pickles.


Safety profile

Not all types of fiddlehead ferns available in the woods are suitable for human consumption. Prolonged use of the wild variety fern-fronds has been found to cause stomach and esophagus cancers. Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) species may be associated with higher incidences of these cancers. Only ostrich fern is free from toxic cancer-causing compounds. Several different ferns grow in the woods feature similar appearance and give rise to be new-beginnings at the same time. Only expert native harvesters could identify safe and edible ostrich ferns in the woods. Confirm from the local farmers about the right kind of ferns before eating. (Medical disclaimer).



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Further resources:

1. USDA National Nutrient Database.

2. Alaska plant profiles- Fiddlehead ferns-pdf


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