I walk the trail searching for tiny green curls among the towering spruce trees popping up through the sphagnum moss. I’m looking for fiddleheads. Actually, the common name for the curly top of all fern species is fiddleheads. There are 54 recognized ferns, including horsetails, growing in Alaska’s forests — it’s a fiddlehead forest. When they first pop up, they’re curled like the head of a fiddle. K’wálx or fiddlehead fern rhizomes, are one of my favorite springtime greens. Depending on what area and elevation, harvesting fiddleheads happens from the end of March through June.
In our traditional Tlingit story, a group of girls were playing near a cliff when they were trapped in a landslide. One of the little girls did not get out safely and was trapped half-way out. Her head became the k’wálx, fiddlehead fern, and her body became the marmot. I know my place in Tlingit Aaní because the language and stories relate to ways of knowing, making harvesting much more meaningful. Traditional knowledge is embedded in our stories, from the green roots, where ferns prefer to grow, to the marmots who love to eat the ferns. Our storytellers were scientists and observers.
Farther down the road, vibrant green catches my eye again. The green color harvesters look for is connected to the Tlingit story of Raven wielding his powerful devilfish digging stick to make beach greens edible for humans. While making the world edible, he came across harvesters who’d cooked up their k’wálx. He used his devilfish stick to turn the fiddleheads bright green. The fiddleheads we mostly harvest in Southeast Alaska are the Northwestern lady fern, Athyrium filix-femina, though we also harvest licorice fern and others, but not the bracken fern because of its toxins and carcinogens.
Now, I feel a U-shaped gouge on the underside of the stalk—I have the right kind of fern. I pinch off the stalk near the bottom, including the curled end. If it’s fibrous and stringy, I don’t harvest it, but that happens later in the season. As long as it’s curled tight, take the whole stalk.
Fiddleheads must be harvested and prepared properly. Only take as much as you need or as much as you can eat. It’s a lot of work to process them once you get home. Leave some for the animals. Avoid patches where you’ve harvested in previous years because you can deplete the root system and kill the plant. Also, I don’t always harvest near hillsides, but areas near a healthy water system like a streams and lakeshore with limited human interaction off the road system.
I prefer harvesting on a dry day rather than a wet day because the brown, papery casings brush right off rather than stick to wet hands. I often use rubber or latex gloves to keep casings from sticking to my hands. Yes, I’ve tried every method to remove the casings, even the pillowcase-in-the-dryer method. First, tie up the pillowcase so it doesn’t come undone, then put it in the dryer on low to no heat. Spinning makes the casings fall off. Still, though, you’ll have to wipe some off with your hands. Some harvesters run plants under cool water and then rub off the casings. Some create air blowing contraptions and blow the casings off, but it doesn’t work well in a rainforest.
With a bag half full of fiddleheads, I head back to my car. Back home, I start the processing. Fiddleheads contain antioxidants, vitamins A, C and K. They’re one of our best sources of fiber plus a great source of potassium, folate, and iron. Traditional medicinal uses for lady fern fiddleheads include remedies for digestions maladies, bronchitis, asthma and pneumonia.
However, because uncooked fiddleheads contain thiaminase, a vitamin B-depleting enzyme, you need to know how to cook them properly. It’s important to remember blanching or boiling will destroy the enzyme. It’s a mistake to just bring fiddleheads home and sauté them without the necessary first step. Never put fiddleheads directly in your soup without boiling or steaming them for ten to fifteen minutes and then straining. And don’t eat them raw. The toxins in fiddleheads can cause reactions from 30 minutes to 12 hours after ingestion: nausea, headache, diarrhea and cramps. Only after steaming or boiling fiddleheads for 10 to 15 minutes should you include fiddleheads in your recipes. And if you’re planning on sautéing them, the same rule applies, boil or steam fiddleheads first before sautéing them.
Basically, if there’s a vegetable in a recipe, you can substitute fiddleheads. Some people say fiddleheads taste like asparagus or spinach. They can be added to herring egg salad or shrimp salad. Use cooked fiddleheads atop pizza, on pasta dishes, in egg dishes and more. Sauté with bacon and use in salmon or halibut dishes. But remember, if you’re eating fiddleheads for the first time, try them in moderate amounts. When you’re sautéing fiddleheads, you can add lemon juice or garlic, seaweed seasoning, or sprinkle with grated parmesan cheese. I prefer fiddleheads sautéed and tossed in with other vegetables, but don’t add too many other flavors.
If you’re going to preserve fiddleheads, most people boil them for only two to three minutes then drain the liquid. Pat or drip dry. Use a vacuum sealer to suck out the air and water to avoid crystallization when frozen. When you want to eat your fiddleheads, boil or steam them right from the frozen package. Some harvesters pickle fiddleheads by themselves or with other vegetables. Fiddleheads can be kept chilled in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed container or baggie for a few days, but rinse them before cooking.
After a long day, I vacuum seal a few packages of fiddleheads and then make stir fry for dinner. It’s what I love about spring. Tomorrow, I’ll find an elder to gift k’wálx. When harvesting you’re learning respect. You respect the plant, the animals you might encounter, your body, the weather, the people you take harvesting, and the knowledge. Remember, though, it’s not a new trend to be harvesting fiddleheads—Alaska Natives have been doing this for thousands of years. One of the most important things for Alaskan foodies and harvesters to consider is many of our elders were punished for eating traditional foods. They were denied lifesaving medicine, schooling, and even shelter if they were perceived as being “uncivilized.” Eating things like fiddleheads and seal meat qualified as uncivilized behaviors.
So take that into consideration if you’re not Alaska Native and fiddlehead harvesting and cooking with fiddleheads is something you’re going to do. Always, always, share with elders or others who can’t get out to harvest. Know and respect and give thanks to the land you’re harvesting on. If you’re in Tlingit Aaní, learn the Lingít names for the plants. Give thanks to the plants. Always be respectful of where you harvest because if you’re new to Southeast you might be trampling over someone else’s traditional harvesting spot. Take time to learn how to harvest, prepare, and cook fiddleheads from an experienced forager.
A káx yan aydél wé tl’átgi — take care of the land. In the Tlingit culture, proper behavior is connected to respect and the harvester knows she must be careful with the little fern girls, and thank the k’wálx because our Fern Girl story tells us the little girl gave her life, a means of creation, and began her new life as a fern. If we do these things the fiddlehead forest will continue to provide for us. Juneau friends, if you’d like to join any of our small group physical distance spring harvesting classes with Planet Alaska this May please reach out to us at .
• Vivian Mork Yéilk’ writes the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott. Planet Alaska publishes every other week in the Capital City Weekly.