Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Sustainable fiddlehead harvesting

        The traditional springtime harvest of fiddleheads – the furled fronds of the ostrich fern – may be in jeopardy in areas where too many are plucked from the same plants in a season. That’s the finding of a study of sustainable fiddlehead harvesting practices by a University of Maine Cooperative Extension expert. 
        David Fuller describes fiddleheads as “a springtime delicacy” in many areas of New England and eastern Canada, where they are collected on public and private property and often sold from trucks along roadsides. The plants range across the northern tier of the United States, throughout much of Canada and Alaska, and south to Virginia. In many places, there are no restrictions on their harvest. “In
Fiddleheads after harvest (David Fuller)

Maine,” he said, “if you see fiddleheads, they’re yours, which made it very difficult to find an unmolested research plot.”
        In his study, Fuller collected all of the marketable-sized fiddleheads in a one-time harvest from one group of ferns, half of the fiddleheads from another group, and none from a third. He found that when all of the fiddleheads were removed in a single harvest, the plants suffered significant decline in growth in subsequent years – from 5.1 to 1.4 fiddleheads per crown – and half of them died after the third consecutive year of harvest.
        Ferns that had half of their fiddleheads harvested experienced a decrease from 6 to 4.7 fiddleheads per crown by the third year. “These findings suggest that fewer than half of the fiddleheads from a given plant could be harvested and be sustainable with no follow-up harvest that year,” Fuller said. “Plants whose fiddleheads have already been harvested by other harvesters that spring should be left alone.”
        Just one fiddlehead should be harvested from ferns producing three fiddleheads, he added, and “if you want to conserve the resource, you should probably leave the older and smaller plants alone entirely.”
        Fuller reported that in areas with a high rate of commercial fiddlehead harvest, many of the plants “are getting wiped out. It’s the same story about harvesting any wild resource. It’s a wild plant and you can’t over do it.”
        He said that most fern species produce fiddleheads, but only fiddleheads from ostrich ferns are recommended for consumption. Little research has been conducted on the edibility of other species, and some fern species may be harmful to consume.
        Fuller is now working on a publication about how to grow fiddleheads in one’s backyard. “It can be relatively easy to do if the habitat is right,” he said. In the wild, ostrich ferns typically grow in an alluvial flood plain with a high overstory and very little understory. “They get a little sunlight before the other trees leaf out,” Fuller said. “I’ve seen them six feet tall. They’re not aggressive spreaders, but I call them assertive. If you’ve got them at the edge of your lawn, they’ll creep in.”

        This article first appeared in the spring 2021 issue of Northern Woodlands magazine.

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