Monday, April 28, 2008

Edible Ostrich Ferns

As ferns start to pop up in the spring, one thing on many people's minds is eating them. For those interested parties living in the midwest and northeast, you're in luck! One of the first ferns to emerge in the spring also happens to be edible: Matteuccia struthiopteris, or the Ostrich Fern, whose fiddleheads are a much-looked-forward-to part of spring for many. The easiest way to obtain fiddleheads for your dinner table is probably to ask for them at your local grocery store.

If you're interested in collecting Matteuccia fiddleheads yourself, it's very important that you be able to recognize it. There are several other ferns that look similar to Matteucia, including the relatively common Cinnamon Fern, Osmundastrum cinnamomea. However, most ferns are packed with secondary compounds and potential carcinogens, and Matteuccia is the only one deemed acceptable for human consumption. 

The pictures above may be helpful in finding this fern. Matteuccia has separate sterile and fertile fronds (known as dimorphic fronds), with the brown fertile ones often emerging first in spring. It is from these that the species gets its common name, Ostrich fern, since they resemble the plumes of an ostrich's tail. Another important identifying character is the groove that runs down the rachis; the fiddleheads and lower part of the rachis will also be covered in golden to brownish scales. If you want to rustle up some fiddleheads yourself, please consult a fern field guide, naturalist, or other expert before consuming anything you collect. Remember, many ferns may contain carcinogens! Also, don't collect every last fiddlehead from one plant, or it won't be able to persist through to the next season.

Last but not least, if you do acquire fiddleheads for your table, let me know how you cook them! Leave a note using the comments button, or email me. I would be very interested to know what works, and perhaps more importantly, what doesn't. I'll leave you with a tasty-sounding recipe I found at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension's website:

Fiddlehead Dijon
1-1/2 pounds fresh fiddleheads
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup nonfat buttermilk
2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3/4 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon
1/4 teaspoon pepper

Clean and prepare fiddleheads. Remove scales and wash thoroughly. Place fiddleheads in a vegetable steamer over boiling water. Cover and steam 20 minutes or until crisp-tender. Set aside and keep warm.

Combine cornstarch and buttermilk in a small saucepan; stir well. Cook over medium heat until thickened and bubbly, stirring constantly. Remove from heat; stir in mustard, lemon juice, tarragon and pepper.

Arrange fiddleheads on a serving platter. Spoon sauce over fiddleheads. Serve immediately. Yield: 6 servings.

Bon appetit!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Googly Eyes Gardner

One of my students (thanks Em!) sent me this video of an SNL skit starting Christopher Walken. It's fantastic! Never underestimate those ferns. My favorite lines:

GEG: Ferns don't have pricklers like cactuses, but what if they all ganged up, tried to choke you, in your sleep? If enough of these ferns lodged themselves in your throat, you'd choke. It's probably not gonna happen, but what if it did? What if it did? What do you think your last thought would be? Mine would be: I always knew. It's gonna be the ferns...


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Peterson Fern Guide

As spring is upon us here in the Midwest and the ferns are starting to emerge, I thought I'd mention the Peterson Field Guide to Ferns by Boughton Cobb, Elizabeth Farnsworth, and Cheryl Lowe, which is my go-to guide for ferns in the field. It covers Northeastern and Central North America and is a pretty exhaustive catalog of the species to be found in the region. The book has keys for ferns in general and then for each genus, and a black-and-white drawing of each species. There are also color photographs of the most common members of each genus, although I wish there were more of these (color photos, not common species, although that would also be nice...); often I find these more helpful than line drawings for identifying things.

This is a great book to use in the field, but it's important to note that it often asks you to look at characters such as rhizome habit or the lowermost pinna pair along a frond, so it isn't the best if you're trying to identify a pressed specimen or an individual frond you find lying along a roadside. But if you're out in the woods and come across a living plant you can't identify, this is a great book!

Sunday, April 20, 2008


One of the best parts of this recent Smokies trip was hunting for a rare filmy fern gametophyte under a bunch of boulders somewhere in North Carolina. My advisor (who led the trip) had a tip-off that filmy ferns could be found in the vicinity of a particular bridge that crossed a rushing stream, so we parked and spent an hour or so clambering over moss-covered boulders the size of buses, and eventually we were successful! I'm still not sure what species (or even genus) this is, but suffice it to say this is a Filmy Fern, a member of the family Hymenophyllaceae. It is likely either Trichomanes petersii (which we expected to find in that location) or Vittaria appalachiana

The latter is very interesting because it is one of three species of Hymenophyllaceae in the eastern U.S. that has only a gametophyte generation - that is, it has done away entirely with the sporophyte, the big leafy part of the life cycle we are used to thinking of as a "fern." These species belong to mostly-tropical genera, and the hypothesis is that they are relicts left over in these locations from warmer times. Since their sporophytes cannot survive outside a limited geographic range, they have dispensed with them. The common name of the family, "Filmy Ferns," derives from the fact that the tissue of these ferns is often very thin, only one or a few cell layers thick, and they typically live in very moist environments where they are continuously wet. They have inspired some poetry, including this piece by botanical poet Dr. Giles Watson:

Hymenophyllum tunbringense
Not rooting, exactly,
but clinging; not breathing
through stomates, but through
a membrane so permeable
that not a glint, not a sunbeam
must fall, without she wither,
she is all delicacy, hanging
limp from a tree's root.

Quivering eternally
on the edge of desiccation,
viable only where air and water
are in equal titre,

the filmy-fern
is oh so like a soul.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Adiantum pedatum

Another beauty we saw in the Smokies was Maidenhair fern, Adiantum pedatum. Since it was still relatively early in the season we only managed to find it as fiddleheads just emerging, some of which were quite small. As you can see, the babies were only the size of moss sporophytes. The "wine red" color of these fiddleheads is actually not uncommon in ferns, though in our flora Maidenhair is really the only one for which this is diagnostic. In the tropics there are many ferns which have red blades and stipes when they first emerge in spring. In Adiantum, the stipe and rachis later turn a dark, shiny red which is almost black, and the blades a bright green. There are four Adiantum species in eastern North America, but A. pedatum is the most common, and a frequent fixture of woodlands and gardens..

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


I just returned from a week of camping in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, where we saw a surprising number of ferns. Some of the most beautiful ones were several species in the genus Asplenium. There are around 700 species in this genus worldwide, but fewer than 30 in North America, and fewer still that are easily found. We were lucky enough to see four (count 'em, four!) during the course of this trip; I had only seen one Asplenium ever in North America before, so this was quite a take. All four are pictured above and their names are, in alphabetical order:

Asplenium montanum (Mountain Spleenwort), Asplenium platyneuron (Ebony Spleenwort), Asplenium rhizophyllum (Walking Fern), and Asplenium trichomanes (Maidenhair Spleenwort).

It was especially fun to see this particular group of species, because three of them are veritable celebrities among Aspleniums: A. montanum, A. platyneuron, and A. rhizophyllum make up the three corners of the so-called "Asplenium triangle," a group of species that involve several putative parents (those three species) and many combinations of those three that have formed hybrids, some of which have become good, fertile species in their own right. Cool to see them!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Ferny fiddle


While perusing the brochures and postcards advertising various local events at a bookstore this weekend, one card in particular caught my eye. It pictured several violins, each of which had been decorated by a local artist, and which are being raffled off to benefit the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra. The project is called Art of Note. What drew my attention was the sight of fiddleheads adorning one of the fiddles! This violin was painted by Wisconsin native Cynthia Quinn, a painter and gardner, who covered the instrument in the Royal Fern, Osmunda regalis. There are fiddleheads on the front and mature fronds on the back, as well as a few frogs woven in. All flora and fauna pictured on the violin are native to Wisconsin. Click on the images for larger versions of her beautiful, fern-inspired work.