Ask Sam: How Are There Fiddleheads in the Grocery Store?

May 31, 2019

These are delicious. Trust me.
Credit Flikr Creative Commons | Glenn Fleishman

Every other Friday on Morning Edition, Outside/In host Sam Evans-Brown answers a question from a listener about some quirk of the world around us.

(Do you have a question for Sam? Submit it here!)  

This week Rye from Newmarket asks: “My question is about fiddleheads, it’s spring now and for me that means fiddleheads. I love eating them and the beauty of them is that you can find them pretty much anywhere. I can even head down to my local major chain grocery store and find fiddleheads in the produce section. My question is where do people in the stores get all these fiddleheads. Are they all harvested in the wild? Or are there fiddlehead farms out there somewhere where they just grow exclusively ferns and fiddleheads?”

Ah, the famously furtive world of fiddlehead foragers.

Quick story: my beat is very safe, but the only time I’ve felt like I might have gotten myself into a dangerous spot was when talking to a fiddlehead forager. As we talked about where he picks, he very casually showed me a pistol he was carrying in his truck. I’m not 100% sure what he was trying to say, but the message I got was “keep quiet radio guy.”

Here are the fiddlehead basics, which are readily available from dozens of articles on the interwebs:

  • While all ferns make a fiddlehead as they unfurl each year, around here only the ostrich fern is edible. (Ok, bracken ferns are arguably edible too, but do so at your own risk.)
  • There are a couple of signs that what you’re looking at is an ostrich fern, and the surest way to learn to ID them is to start with someone who knows already, but one key feature is they have a papery skin that looks almost like an onion.
  • Ostrich ferns grow in rich, moist, soils in shaded spots. The classic example is the flood plain of a river.

However, if you’re looking for something more specific—like a google map pin dropped on a prime fiddleheading location—you’re out of luck. Foragers keep that information close to the breast.

Secretive Supply Chain

But to answer the specific question: indeed, the fiddleheads that are in your major chain grocery store most likely were picked in the woods.

“There’s literally an army of foragers out there harvesting fiddleheads for this market,” says David Fuller, who works at the Cooperative Extension for the University of Maine up in Farmington, and is quoted in pretty much every fiddlehead article I've ever seen ever in the history of ever.

In fact there are so many foragers in Maine that there was a proposal to kick them off private land unless they asked permission first, and homeowners have taken to planting their own patch of fiddleheads so they can get them before the commercial foragers do. 

When the ferns start to poke up from underground those foragers head out into the woods, pick what they find and bring them to a processor or distributor. (Another quick story, I called the folks from that last link to ask how the business works and was told curtly over the phone, “I’m not answering any questions about fiddleheads.”)

But according to David Fuller, the typical profile of a fiddleheader is someone who “likes to be outdoors foraging, they may well be retired or partially retired, or they may have a small business of their own and they do this to supplement incomes.”

David says a good picker can bring in 100 to 150 pounds a day, but other accounts I’ve found suggest that 25 pounds might be more typical of what your average forager can bring in, which depending on the market might get you $60 at from a wholesaler.

So unless you’re one of these super-pickers that David describes (“They may pick with both hands… they’re looking like a windmill out there.”) this is not a super lucrative job.

But why not farm them?

You can grow ostrich ferns, and there appears to be at least one large scale commercial fiddlehead grower in Ontario, but remember this is not a field crop. The ferns like shade so these operations plant ferns in mature forests. Maple sugar stands are a logical place to put them.  

But while a few fiddlehead farms might exist, the fiddleheads in the grocery aisle are most likely to have been wild harvested simply because of the economics. “There are enough wild fiddleheads out there to satisfy the market, so I don’t think the farming is really all that economically viable,” says David Fuller.

And one last PSA: if you’re going fiddleheading and you want to be sure that you’re being a good responsible steward of the ferns you find, only pick half the fiddleheads on a crown and the ferns will keep coming back year after year.

Sam Evans-Brown, is host of NHPR’s Outside/In which you can subscribe to where-ever you get your podcasts. If you’d like to submit a question you can record it as a voice memo on your smartphone and send it to oustidein@nhpr.org, OR call the hotline, 1-844-GO-OTTER.