Table of content A-Z


ostrich fern fiddleheads


syn.: Osmunda struthiopteris, Struthiopteris germanica

Botanical name: Matteuccia struthiopteris


The tops of the young fronds of the ostrich fern are traditionally eaten as a spring vegetable in Canada and parts of the USA. Owing to their appearance they are called "fiddleheads". The fronds of almost all ferns look like this, but only those of the ostrich fern and the cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) are suitable for eating. The ostrich fern favours flood plains and river banks, but it can also be found in thickets and forests.


North American Indian tribes make a traditional drink from the ostrich fern. At the time of colonization they also ate it roasted or fried as a vegetable. The first European settlers there suffered a very harsh winter in 1783-1784 and were forced to eat various wild ferns, grapes and tree leaves to avoid starvation. Only the fronds of the ostrich fern subsequently became a regular seasonal commodity and a traditional spring food.


Outside of North America and Canada the ostrich fern has attracted little interest as a vegetable plant.




Fiddleheads are grown mainly by native inhabitants and harvested in May and June. Although this is the time when they are in greatest supply, they are theoretically available all year, as they are also sold frozen and in tins.


Appearance, taste, characteristics


As their name implies, fiddleheads look like small green scrolls at the head end of a fiddle or violin. The young green fronds are rolled up, with a diameter of about 2.5 cm. They are enveloped in brown papery husks that are removed directly after the harvest. The stems are soft and shaped like a U on the rolled-up inside.


After being harvested they should be prepared and eaten quickly, because their taste is then best; it resembles spinach and asparagus.




The composition of ingredients is similar to that of asparagus. Fiddleheads contain quite a lot of potassium and little sodium. This makes them suitable for persons who must watch their intake of sodium for health reasons.


Harmful substances


Only those who know what they are doing should harvest fiddleheads themselves, as only two of the many varieties are edible: the ostrich fern and the cinnamon fern. These too are repeatedly suspected of being carcinogenic, but this has been disproven in tests with rats. Symptoms of toxicity are probably due to the confusion with other varieties or to insufficient cooking. Although no toxin has been found in fiddleheads to date, it is assumed that only cooking makes them digestible. They should be cooked for at least 10 minutes before they are eaten. It is also recommended not to eat large quantities, as this can lead to poisoning.


Practical tips for preparation


Those who wish to collect fiddleheads themselves should be sure that they recognize the two edible varieties. From these only the young, 2.5- to 5-cm-long tips are cut off and freed of their paper husks right away. After being washed several times, the fiddleheads should be prepared quickly. They are cooked for about 10 minutes in lightly salted water and served, for example, with butter and vinegar.


Sources and links used:


Aderkas, Patrick von: 'Economic History of Ostrich Fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, the Edible Fiddlehead'; in: New York Botanical Garden: Economic Botany, 38 (1), 1984, pp. 14-23; New York


Longtoe, Vera: Fiddleheads: A Spring Favorite; in: The Voice of the Turtle, 1997; found March 19, 2010 under: http//


El-Begearmi, Mahmoud et al: 'Facts on Fiddleheads'; University of Maine Cooperative Extension Bulletin #4198; found under:





  This article was written by




  With the website the Fritz Terfloth Foundation of Münster offers consumers independent and competent information about plant foods and their health effects. All texts are subject to German copyright law. Information about the conditions for use of the texts by third parties can be found here.