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Maine Fiddleheads: A Rite of Spring
05/10/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

It's the time of year when fiddleheads - delicate spring shoots of the ostrich fern - start popping out of the ground and onto roadside farm stands. These edible, little scroll-shaped plants that grow in the wild, have long been a traditional food for the region's native tribes. But as Jennifer Mitchell reports, they've become so popular that even big grocery stores have begun selling them alongside lettuce and tomatoes.

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Fiddleheads (above) are something of a New England rite of spring, dating back to well before Europeans arrived. "These fiddleheads up here," says Butch Wells, "my father transplanted maybe a dozen plants, probably 20 years ago - a dozen little cones he stuck in the ground."

And those dozen little fiddlehead cones, says Wells, have multiplied into many dozens of fiddleheads ready for harvest. Wells and his family have been harvesting and selling fiddleheads for the better part of a century from the woods near their farm in western Maine.

Maine and New Hampshire possess ideal conditions for the ostrich fern, which loves loamy, woodsy areas with plenty of moisture. If conditions are right, this edible fern species will happily spread all over.

"If you look at the fiddleheads now, you know, they're out here in the daffodils, they're out there in the lawn," Wells says.

Harvesters from all over the region bring the fiddleheads they collect to Wells, who puts them through the processing facility in the barn next to his farm house. There, the fiddleheads undergo a water bath and take a ride through a super-secret machine.

"There's no camera on there is there?" he asks. And he's not kidding. "We don't take pictures of this."

That's because no one else has a machine quite like it. It's an unpatented processing system built by his grandfather in the last century. And Wells says it's the key to having what he calls "the cleanest fiddleheads on the market."

What started out as a local cottage industry has become big business. By the time the season is over, he will have shipped about 30,000 pounds of fiddleheads across the country. They sell at gourmet stores in California for up to $20 per pound. In Maine they go for just $2 to $3 dollars per pound at roadside stands.

fiddle2You can also get them for free - if you know where to look. "That's a trout lily," Wells says. "They'll hang out around trout lilies, blood roots, Stinking Benjamin, which is a trillium."

And they tend to favor fields where a few maple trees are growing, says David Fuller (left), a fiddlehead expert with the Cooperative Extension Service in Farmington.

"I tell people there's, like, three telltale signs: One, it has a deep U-shaped groove on the inside of the stem. The stem is smooth - it's not furry or hairy - it's dark green. And then when the fiddle head first comes out of the clump it'll have this brown parchment-like cover on it," Fuller says. "It needs to have all three of those characteristcis to properly identify it as a fiddlehead."

And when harvesting, he says, it's important not to pick every fiddlehead in the cluster. Fuller's own studies have shown that overpicking eventually leads to the death of the plant. With tens of thousands of pounds being exported, and an untraceable amount more likely being picked and consumed, overburdening the resource is a concern.

Unlike other fruits and vegetables, fiddleheads are not likely to be raised commercially. "They've studied that quite a bit in New Brunswick, where they have done a lot a lot of experiments with cultivating fiddleheads, and it is possible," Fuller says, "but it's a fairly pricey thing to do to get them established."

So, Maine's harvest will likely remain a wild one, he says, with the crop gathered wherever it happens to grow. That seasonal harvest, along with growing commercial traction, has drawn attention from lawmakers.

There's a bill before the Legislature this year that would attempt to crack down on unauthorized fiddlehead harvesting. Sponsored by Rep. Russell Black of Wilton, the bill would make it a crime to harvest fiddleheads for commercial sale without the express pemission of a land owner.

EDITOR'S NOTE: And now a word of caution about those fiddleheads. Experts recommend cooking them for 15 minutes in boiling water or 10 minutes by steaming. Although no toxins or specific microbes have been found in the plants, several outbreaks of foodborne illness have been linked to eating raw or lightly cooked fiddleheads.

Photos: Nick Woodward


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