How to Grow Fiddlehead Ferns

Fiddlehead ferns with fronds uncurling at ends

The Spruce / K. Dave

Fiddlehead ferns are becoming increasingly popular, both on restaurant menus and at farmer's markets. These popular, classic ferns are revered for their delicious, emerging spring fronds and their stately, vase-shaped habit. The tightly coiled, new spring fiddlehead fronds are only available for a few weeks in an entire year. They taste wonderful lightly steamed and served with butter. Remove the bitter, reddish-brown, papery coating before steaming. Fiddleheads should not be eaten fresh. They must be cooked first to remove the shikimic acid.

Fiddleheads contain even more antioxidants than blueberries, are packed with omega-3 fatty acids and dietary fiber, are low in sodium and contain vitamins A and C, niacin, potassium, phosphorus, iron, and magnesium.

Botanical Name  Matteuccia struthiopteris
Common Name Fiddlehead fern
Plant Type Perennial
Mature Size 3–4 ft. tall, 1 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Partial to full shade
Soil Type Moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
Soil pH Fertile
Bloom Time Mid-April to early June
Flower Color Green
Hardiness Zones 2 to 7 (USDA)
Native Area Northern United States and Canada in moist areas
Toxicity Mildly toxic

Starting Fiddlehead Ferns

Crowns for fiddlehead ferns can be purchased from your local nursery or a mail-order gardening catalog and planted out in spring once the threat of frost has passed but are often available throughout the growing season, either as bare root or potted stock. They are often sold as ornamental plants in the perennial department of your local garden center or nursery.

This particular species of fern spreads by underground runners. Space the plants approximately two to three feet apart. New plants will develop from the main root and can be divided and moved or left in place.

Growing Fiddlehead Ferns

Light

Fiddlehead ferns prefer light to partial shade but tolerate full shade or full sun if the soil stays moist.

Soil

The soil should be average to fertile, humus-rich, neutral to acidic, and moist. Add compost to the planting hole to achieve slightly acidic soil.

Water

Moisture for ferns is rather critical. If the area is prone to drying out, consider using a thick mulch around the base of the plants, and possibly a soaker hose buried under the mulch, on a timer, to keep the roots and soil consistently moist. Leaves may scorch if the soil is not moist enough.

Climate

The ferns are planted during the spring, after the last frost, and in northern climates.

Fertilizer

Fiddlehead ferns do not require a lot of fertilizer, simply a cup of compost or a slow-release plant food is suitable during the spring season.

Fiddlehead fern with bright green fronds and leaves uncurling closeup

The Spruce / K. Dave

Fiddlehead fern planted in ground with fronds uncurling at ends

The Spruce / K. Dave

Fiddlehead fern stems with small curled fronds laying grouped on the ground

The Spruce / K. Dave

Harvesting Fiddlehead Ferns

Let your plants become established for a couple of years before you begin harvesting. Pick new fronds in spring just as they are beginning to uncurl, often in May, but vary depending on the length of your growing season, the last frost date, and weather conditions. Mature ostrich ferns produce an average of seven fronds. When picking fiddleheads, make sure to pick no more than three (no more than half) per plant to allow enough foliage surface area for the plant to photosynthesize and thrive throughout the growing season.

Are Fiddlehead Ferns Toxic?

Fiddleheads can be toxic if eaten raw or are not cooked properly. They must be boiled for at least ten minutes before serving. Also be sure to clean and store properly.

Symptoms of Poisoning

Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea may occur shortly after eating fiddlehead ferns and the effects can last longer than a day.

Fiddlehead Fern Problems and Pests

Aside from snails and slugs being attracted to the moist soil needed for the ferns to thrive, they are not prone to many problems.

Tips for Growing Fiddlehead Ferns

Fiddlehead ferns appreciate a moist woodland garden and are often found growing wild alongside woodland streams and creeks. These ferns are also useful in shaded borders and are quick to spread. If you have a garden bed near a gutter downspout, the ferns will absolutely thrive there.

Recommended Fiddlehead Fern Varieties

Ostrich Fern (M. struthiopteris or M. pensylvanica) forms a circular cluster of slightly arching, feathery fronds. Stiff, brown, fertile fronds, covered in reproductive spores, stick up in the center of the cluster in late summer and persist through winter. They are popular choices for dried arrangements.