Dinner - Fiddlehead ferns, dandelion greens, fireweed greens, fireweed stalks, beach lovage, broccoli, bacon, onions, garlic, sea salt, and black pepper.

Dinner - Fiddlehead ferns, dandelion greens, fireweed greens, fireweed stalks, beach lovage, broccoli, bacon, onions, garlic, sea salt, and black pepper.

Planet Alaska: The fiddlehead forest

The versatile, verdant veggit.

By Vivian Mork Yéilk’

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.

[Planet Alaska: A berry by any other name would taste as sweet]

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.

Basically, if there’s a vegetable in a recipe, you can substitute fiddleheads. Some people say fiddleheads taste like asparagus or spinach. (Courtesy Photo / Vivian Mork Yéilk’)

Basically, if there’s a vegetable in a recipe, you can substitute fiddleheads. Some people say fiddleheads taste like asparagus or spinach. (Courtesy Photo / Vivian Mork Yéilk’)

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.

[On The Trails: Who eats ferns?]

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 .

Want to learn more about fiddleheads?

Check out these links.

— chrome-extension://oemmndcbldboiebfnladdacbdfmadadm/http://plants.alaska.gov/pdf/Fiddleheads.pdf

https://fearlesseating.net/fiddleheads/

— https://www.juneauempire.com/news/who-eats-ferns/

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.

More in News

(Juneau Empire file photo)
Aurora forecast for the week of April 8

These forecasts are courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute… Continue reading

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Friday, April 12, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Thursday, April 11, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

The sky and mountains are reflected in the water on April 5, 2012, at the Kootznoowoo Wilderness in the Tongass National Forest’s Admiralty Island National Monument. Conservation organizations bought some private land and transferred it to the U.S. Forest Service, resulting in an incremental expansion of the Kootznoowoo Wilderness and protection of habitat important to salmon and wildlife. (Photo by Don MacDougall/U.S. Forest Service)
Conservation groups’ purchase preserves additional land in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest

A designated wilderness area in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the largest… Continue reading

A welcome sign is shown Sept. 22, 2021, in Tok. President Joe Biden won Alaska’s nominating contest on Saturday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
Biden wins more delegates in Alaska and Wyoming as he heads toward Democratic nomination

President Joe Biden nudged further ahead in the Democratic nomination for reelection… Continue reading

Juneau Assembly members and other visitors examine a meeting room formerly used by the nine-member Alaska State Board of Education and Early Development on Monday, April 8, which is about 25% larger than the Assembly Chambers at City Hall. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Of three possible new City Hall buildings, one stands out — but plenty of proposed uses for other two

Michael J. Burns Building eyed as city HQ; childcare, animal shelter among options at school sites.

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, speaks to members of the Senate majority caucus’ leadership group on Friday. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Schools, university and projects across Alaska are set to receive money from new budget bill

Alaska Senate sends draft capital budget to House as work continues on a state spending plan

The Boney Courthouse in downtown Anchorage, across the street from the larger Nesbett Courthouse, holds the Alaska Supreme Court chambers. (Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska judge strikes down state’s cash payments to families using correspondence school programs

Decision will become a ‘hot-button legislative item’ in final weeks of session, lawmakers say.

A statue of William Henry Seward stands outside the Dimond Courthouse in downtown Juneau. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)
Juneau man convicted of sexual abuse of 15-year-old girl more than four years after incidents occur

JPD: Randy James Willard, 39, sent explicit videos to and engaged in sexual contact with victim.

Most Read