Russell Black and his family are huge fiddlehead fans. Black forages for them every spring on the riverbank that runs through his farm in Wilton, harvesting enough to stock the freezer for winter. And every year during fiddlehead season, he invites his children and their families over for a fiddlehead fry.

But over the years, Black grew tired of traveling down to the riverbank only to find that commercial foragers had got there first, picking the fiddleheads without his permission. So sometime around 1980, he dug up six to eight ostrich ferns – the plants that give us fiddleheads – from the riverbank and transplanted them to a spot by his house.

“I knew they could be transplanted because an old farmer friend of mine had two big patches right by his door going into his kitchen,” Black said.

“We didn’t pick those for four or five years,” he said. “We let them spread, and they spread fairly quickly. We don’t over-pick them, and they keep spreading. Eventually, we’re going to have plenty right here in our dooryard.”

Eventually? Black estimates that he now has at least 1,000 plants growing around his home with one patch as big as 50 to 60 feet long and 20 feet wide.

KIDS, DO TRY THIS AT HOME

Not many Mainers grow their own fiddleheads for food, but it can be done, says Dave Fuller, who specializes in agriculture and non-timber forest products at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service in Farmington. Nurseries sell plenty of ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris), Fuller noted, but most people use them as ornamentals and never make the connection that the emerging ferns are edible fiddleheads.

Foraging for wild fiddleheads is a rite of spring in Maine. The first coiled fronds should start poking up through the ground this weekend in southern Maine, Fuller said. But where there are wild fiddleheads, foragers follow, and entire patches can be picked clean in no time. Fuller suggests that if more people grew their own, it would take some of the pressure off the wild harvest.

A home garden patch of just 10 plants could supply a family with two or three fiddlehead meals in the spring, which is probably enough for most people, Fuller said, since they’re not something you eat every day. “It’s a special treat, like brook trout,” he said.

And harvesting just outside your door is easier than foraging.

“When the weather’s right, they can grow several inches in a day, and they’ll go by before you know it,” Fuller said. “If you have them out in your yard, you can pick them when they’re ready.”

NO SOGGY BOTTOMS

That’s what Laura Cabot, a caterer in Waldoboro, does.

A group of four plants grow in one spot on her property, which has a fiddlehead-friendly stream running through it, and a group of three in another spot in her woodland gardens, both patches deliberately planted. She doesn’t grow enough to use in her catering business. Instead, Cabot harvests about a cupful at a time, and sautés them like asparagus, pickles them, or bakes one of her favorites – a fiddlehead quiche.

“They’re a special treat,” she said.

Fuller has cultivated his own patches, too, and hopes to harvest his first fiddleheads this year. Growing them is not difficult, he said, if you have a spot that mimics their natural environment.

“Fiddleheads don’t like wet feet all the time,” Fuller said. “They’ll grow where it is wet seasonally, but it’s not wet most of the time. It might be moist, but it’s not wet. They grow on fairly high organic matter soils.”

Fiddleheads don’t like open fields, where they’re exposed to wind and direct sunlight, he continued. They’ll grow in the understory of tall trees like silver maples, ash and red maples, but conifers throw too much shade. So if you’re growing them, Fuller advised, plant them on the north side of the house, or in the understory of a landscape tree or shrub in your yard. They will spread if they’re happy.

And how.

“They spread like crazy,” said Mollie Sanders Martin, who harvests a patch behind her Kittery Point home every spring. “They’re unbelievably prolific.”

Martin’s great-grandmother, Lois Hoyt, brought the family fiddleheads back from either Vermont or Aroostook County – no one’s quite sure – and planted them over in a damp area behind the house where the nettles are thick and rhubarb and sumac also grow, and where a wild turkey once laid an egg.

You can use fiddleheads in Fiddlehead and Pancetta Pasta. Staff photo by Gabe Souza

“There’s a natural stream that goes through the yard, so they’re fed by a stream,” Martin said. “We don’t have to water them or anything.”

The patch has fed five generations of Sanders and can produce 35 pounds of fiddleheads. Martin remembers her great-grandmother blanching and freezing them. She’d “boil the daylights” out of them and serve them with a little vinegar. Martin herself doesn’t like canned or frozen fiddleheads – too mushy, she says – so she uses fresh ones as a substitute for asparagus, making dishes such as fiddlehead quiche and fiddlehead-pancetta pasta. Her husband, who is a chef, likes to pickle them.

After the fiddleheads finally start showing themselves in spring, the family eats them for a couple of nights and then starts giving them away – to cousins, friends and neighbors.

“I eventually let a couple of foragers come to the house and harvest because we couldn’t keep up,” Martin said.

BE CHOOSY

Martin’s fiddleheads have been growing since sometime in the 1940s. For those just getting started, Fuller, Cabot and Black all recommend giving the plants two to three years to get established before you harvest them, just as you would an asparagus bed.

Once you start harvesting, don’t pick more than half of the fiddleheads in a given crown (or clump). Fuller did a study a few years ago on Black’s farm that showed overharvesting could kill the fern and, ultimately, an entire patch. In his study, 90 percent of the fiddlehead crowns that were overharvested were dead after three years. Black suggests picking less than 25 percent of a new fiddlehead patch. Once the plants are established, harvest only about a third of each patch.

“You can definitely damage or kill out a whole patch of fiddleheads by over-picking it,” Black said.

Fuller’s own patch of about 30 ferns, some planted five years ago, others two, has “just started to spread, so I haven’t picked them yet, just to give them a head start,” he said.

To increase your chances of success, Fuller suggests adding compost to the soil before planting. And he said it doesn’t hurt to mulch around a fiddlehead patch to keep the weeds down.

Black’s biggest patch is in a road culvert that filters out like a big delta. Water flow keeps the plants moist, and silt brings in nutrients.

“Once you get going, they’re very easy to grow,” Black said. “You don’t have to do anything to them, except maybe to cut some raspberries and hardwood trees that start growing up.”

Black’s hometown of Wilton is also home to W.S. Wells & Son, once the only factory in the country that canned fiddleheads. They stopped canning in about 2009.

Fiddleheads are one of the many items for sale on the opening day of the summer season for the Farmers’ Market at Mill Park in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“We used to have a lot of people picking fiddleheads here to supply that cannery,” Black said. “But today the cannery only supplies the fresh market. They don’t can anymore, and they bring them in from Bangor and Aroostook and Rumford.”

Fewer locals forage for fiddleheads to make extra money, Black said, but commercial pickers are still very active. Black still likes to forage his own property so he’ll have enough fiddleheads to last through the winter, but that doesn’t always work out. Although it’s illegal to forage without a landowner’s permission, and although Black has posted his land, sometimes he’ll drive to the riverbank on his property where fiddleheads grow wild, “and somebody’s already picked the whole patch,” he said. “They’ve gone through and wiped it right out.”

Black picks at least 50 pounds of fiddleheads – maybe as much as 75 pounds – from the plants he transplanted around his home. He likes to eat them steamed with salt, pepper and butter. And the couple often deep fries them “in the same batter we fry dandelion blossoms,” Black said. “Those are super.”

Black expects fiddleheads to start appearing around Wilton in about 10 days. He and his wife will probably eat them three or four times the first week they harvest them, then invite their kids and grandkids over for the annual fiddlehead fry. Will he give any away?

“Nope, nope, nope! It’s an awful job to clean them, and it’s back-breaking picking, so they can find their own,” Black said, laughing.

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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