What Are the Health Benefits of Fiddlehead Ferns?

Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on June 03, 2022
4 min read

Fiddlehead ferns were once only eaten by foragers willing to tromp through the forest in search of this delicacy. Now, they're popping up on menus and recipe websites all over. One of spring's wild treats, they're like garlic scrapes in that they're only available for a short time in the spring each year. 

Fiddleheads taste similar to asparagus or broccoli with a nutty flavor, but are they safe to eat? While they're a healthy source of nutrients, you should also take some precautions when eating them. 

Fiddlehead has two different meanings when it comes to ferns. Most ferns have fiddleheads, which are the coiled fronds that appear when they're sprouting. This coil resembles the scrolls at the top of a violin, which is where it gets its name. 

However, when people talk about eating fiddlehead ferns, they're talking about the fiddleheads of ostrich ferns. Other types of ferns can be harmful. 

Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) fiddleheads are edible. You can identify them by their papery, brown, scale-like covering over the fiddlehead. They're approximately one inch in diameter and have a smooth fern stem. On the inside of their fern stem, they have a deep, U-shaped groove. 

You can find them grouped in clusters of three to twelve fiddleheads per plant. 

Fiddlehead health benefits include protecting you from cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. They contain a lot of the vitamins and nutrients your body needs, and they're low in calories, fat, and cholesterol.

Fiddlehead nutrition profile. One cup of cooked fiddlehead ferns contains the following nutrients: 

  • Calories: 46
  • Fat: 1 gram, 0 saturated or trans fat
  • Cholesterol: 0 milligrams
  • Sodium: 1 milligram
  • Carbs: 8 grams
  • Fiber: 3 grams
  • Sugar: 3 grams, 0 added sugar
  • Protein: 6 grams
  • Vitamin C: 31 milligrams
  • Iron: 2 milligrams
  • Potassium: 501 milligrams 

Antioxidants. Fiddlehead ferns are high in antioxidants and essential fatty acids, which are often found in so-called "superfoods." They can be especially good for people who don't eat fish, which are also high in essential fatty acids. 

Potassium. One serving of fiddlehead ferns provides about 11% of the daily potassium you need. Potassium has been shown to help maintain healthy blood pressure

Vitamins C. Fiddlehead ferns provide about 34% of the vitamin C you need. Vitamin C helps strengthen your immune system

Fiber. A serving of fiddlehead ferns provides 10% of the daily fiber you need.  A diet high in fiber has a lot of health benefits, as fiber: 

  • Maintains bowel health
  • Lowers "bad" cholesterol 
  • Helps control blood sugar
  • Helps you achieve a healthy weight
  • Reduces your risk of dying from heart disease
  • Reduces your risk of dying from cancer

Despite their many health benefits, fiddlehead ferns can be toxic under certain conditions. In 1994, a large outbreak of foodborne illness was traced to eating raw or undercooked fiddlehead ferns. Several instances of foodborne illness have been related to fiddlehead ferns since then. While researchers don't know exactly what causes illness from fiddlehead ferns, they do know that proper handling and cooking reduces the risk. Never eat raw or undercooked fiddlehead ferns. 

The symptoms of foodborne illness related to undercooked or raw fiddlehead ferns usually appear from 30 minutes to 12 hours after eating them and include: 

  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach cramps
  • Headaches

The symptoms may be mild or severe and usually last less than 24 hours, but they can last up to three days. If you experience these symptoms after eating fiddleheads, contact your healthcare provider and local public health agency to report it. 

Fiddlehead ferns can be found in moist, partly shady areas, such as riverbanks, creekbanks, and open meadows. They can usually be harvested within a four-to-six-week window between late April and early June, depending on your location. Look for ferns that are two to six inches tall and tightly coiled, with a portion of the stem visible. You can snap fiddleheads off from the stem or use a knife to cut them. 

Follow sustainable practices when harvesting fiddleheads, including: 

  • Get permission from the landowner before harvesting
  • Only harvest from healthy crowns that have at least four fiddleheads
  • Don't pick more than half of the fiddleheads from one crown and don't pick any more from that crown for the rest of the year

It's important to follow safe handling guidelines to avoid foodborne illnesses. When you're collecting fiddlehead ferns, make sure you use a clean container. Use water that's safe for drinking to clean your fiddleheads, not river or lake water.  

Remove the papery covering before you cook the fiddleheads. This is best done when they're dry. If you have a small amount, you can rub them off with your hands. For larger amounts, rub them and then lightly toss them in front of an outdoor fan to help blow away the papery covering. 

After you remove the brown, papery covering, rinse the fiddleheads well. You can boil them for 15 minutes or steam them for 10 to 12 minutes. They make a great side dish when cooked with a little butter and your favorite spices. You can also serve them in rice, pasta, or stir-fry dishes.

If you end up with more fiddlehead ferns than you can eat, preserve them for later by freezing them. Blanch them first, though, using the following method: 

  • Remove the skin and rinse well.
  • Bring a large pot of water to boil.
  • Add no more than four cups of fiddleheads to the water.
  • Return to boil and cook for at least two minutes (until they turn a brighter color but aren't yet soft).
  • Drain fiddleheads and immediately submerge them in icy water.
  • Dry fiddleheads thoroughly and place them in food storage containers.
  • Freeze immediately.