Wednesday, April 16, 2008

No fiddling around?

Discretion is said to be the better part of valor, but when do we take it too far? While out walking the other day I found a nice patch of fiddlheads—the new spring growth of ferns, named for their distinctly violin scroll shape. Mature fern fronds are toxic, but the young emerging shoots of a few particular species are succulent and delicious, their taste often described as a cross between asparagus and artichoke. High-end restaurants charge boocoo for this delicacy of spring.

The fiddleheads were unfurling amid a tangle of devil's club and salmonberry along a boggy section of trail. The proper way to forage a fiddlehead patch is to scout the fully leafed-out ferns in the summer or fall when they're easier to identify, then return the following spring to harvest a small portion of the new growth. You take two or three fiddleheads per cluster, never more than 40 percent of the total. Unlike many other plants, ferns don't grow back once picked.

I was in a quandry. These delicate green beauties, curled up and tender in their papery sheaths, sure looked tasty. But I couldn't ID them. There's one particular species of fern, bracken, which has been proven to have carcinogenic properties. It causes intestinal cancer in mice, and has been implicated in higher rates of stomach cancer where humans traditionally eat it. That said, bracken fern is considered a delicacy in Japan and has been a staple of Native Americans' diets for millennia. Many experienced foragers warn against it just the same.

I picked a bunch anyway. Back at home I tried cleaning a few. The brown papery sheath didn't come off as easily as other fiddleheads I'd eaten in the past. These definitely weren't the sought-after fiddleheads of the ostrich fern. Other choice varieties include the lady fern and cinnamon fern.

What to do? I emailed my findings to the ForageAhead Yahoo group. Recently we'd had a thread about the carcinogens in bracken fern. I quoted my wife Marty, who's normally cautious about food but had her sights set on these toothsome-looking greens: "Everything gives you cancer these days." A fellow named Green Deane, proprietor of the Eat the Weeds web site, wrote back:

Everything causes cancer, and the truth is we all get cancer every day. Our immune system just takes care of it. Perhaps I am getting cranky but I would trust the nutrition in a fiddlehead before the advice of a nutritionist about the fiddlehead. When it comes to food, our ancestors got along very well without the advice of nutritionists, doctors or researchers. They ate successfully for hundreds of thousands of years, certainly tens of thousands of years. I think a non-calorie sweetener is a far greater threat to your life than a fern. Personally, my rule is if my great grandmother would not recognize it as food I don't eat it (coco-puffs, non-dairy creamer, carbonated cheese food, margarine, et cetera). And stay away from doctors, they make you sick.

Cranky or not, Deane raises some good points. On the other hand, I'm a fan of science and empiricism (if not corporate nutritionism).

So it's settled. I've decided to try them. Just a few. Maybe one. If this is my last post, you'll know why. I also plan to do a little research at the library to see if I can narrow down the list of possible species. Eating a new species from the wild is always unnerving, particularly in the plant and fungal kingdoms. Our ancestors sacrificed a lot of lives in the long lab test of edibility. I don't plan to join the errors in the annals of trial-and-error, but I do want to honor their courage—only on a small, hopefully not so life-threatening scale.

This whole imbroglio reminds me of related discussions going on lately in mycophagist circles, of which more tomorrow.


anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
valereee said...

The fiddlehead forms a fiddle shape -- it leans backward so that the curl is carried =over= the stem, rather than being hung like a flag =from= the stem. Does the bracken fern do the same?

Langdon Cook said...

There's an image of a bracken fern fiddlehead on this page. I don't think that's what I've got here. To my eye, the interesting feature is the extent of the papery sheath--it's much more developed than on other species.

Chickenofthewoods said...

I've always had trouble with these things.

Wish you'd set me straight.

Ostrich ferns
are not native for us, are they?

, though, we've got. And I thought that's what was bought and sold 'round here in the northwest, non?

By the way, found some merkles on the river today! Mmmm!

Langdon Cook said...

I think I may have solved the mystery. Spiny wood ferns are native to the PNW and their fiddleheads are known for the sticky paper sheath. Click on this link and scroll down to see an image and blurb.

Chickenofthewoods said...

"Several species of fiddleheads were often eaten in the spring by natives and early settlers and are still considered a delicatessen today. "


GinGin said...

I know this post is several years old, but did you happen to find out more about this fern (glad you survived the test)! I gathered some that look identical this weekend and still have some reservations about cooking them.

If you happen to see this, thank you for looking. I've been researching fens for hours and hours since I've gathered them. I have some lady ferns, I believe and whatever it is that these are here.

Langdon Cook said...

GinGin - The fiddlehead pictured at top is a buckler fern, aka spreading wood fern. I looked into edibility issues a while back and couldn't find much. Native Americans ate the rhizome apparently, but there's not much in the the literature about the fiddleheads. I would look for lady fern fiddleheads if I were you. They're out and about around Puget Sound right now!