Fiddleheads are the edible young fern fronds (crosiers) that rise from the plant each year in the spring.  They are called fiddleheads because they are usually tightly coiled and resemble the head of a fiddle.  Three edible fiddlehead species grow in the United States. Ostrich Fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, is the species most commonly harvested and commercially marketed, but it does not grow in the Pacific Northwest.  Bracken fern, Pteridium aquilinum, and lady fern, Athyrium filix-femina are the two edible fiddlehead species in the Pacific Northwest. The fiddlehead is and has been an important food and medicine for Native Americans, Asians, and many other people throughout the world.  Other parts of these ferns, such as the rhizome are also edible, and the mature fronds can also be used in many ways.  


           Bracken fern is the world’s most widespread fern, growing in meadows, roadsides, clearings, sterile sandy soils, burns, avalanche tracks, dry to wet forests, acid sites such as lake-shores and bogs (Pojar and MacKinnon, 1994).  It grows in most parts of the world except at high altitudes and very dry and cold places (Taylor, 1970).  Bracken is a hardy plant, and considered invasive in some parts, like England, where measures are being taken to eradicate it.  The plant takes over burn areas, agricultural fields, and grazing lands and once it is established, it is difficult to get rid of.  This is a major problem in many parts of the world that rely on grazing lands because bracken contains harmful secondary compounds that poison livestock (Smith 1985).

         Bracken is characterized by its triangular blades, two to three times pinnate, which stem from slender, straw-colored stipes.  Thomas Taylor (2006) describes the rhizomes as slender, wide-creeping, sparsely scaly and very dark.  In the Pacific Northwest, the bracken fern prefers sunlit areas and open fields.  It grows well in burned areas and meadows of the forest.



           Native Americans have eaten the fiddleheads and rhizomes of bracken fern.  The mealy centers of bracken rhizomes were eaten for their starch by many Western Washington tribes—Chehalis, Cowlitz, Green River, Klallam, Lummi, Makah, Quileute, Quinault, Skagit, Skokomish, Snohomish, Squaxin, Swinomish and Lower Chinook, who prepared the rhizomes by roasted them in ashes and peeling the skins. The Carrier of Northern B.C. steamed the roots in a roasting pit with alder branches for flavor, and ate them with meat or fish (Leidl and Sheck, ND).  The Cowlitz also eat the crosiers of young plants raw.  This is interesting because most of the current literature, including edible plant field guides, consider raw bracken crosiers to be carcinogenic (Gunther, 1945).  Edibility on a whole for these fiddleheads is debatable, ranging from being useful only as a famine or survival plant, to being desirable by various Asian populations.  Bracken is popular in Japan.  As of 1986, the city of Tokyo alone was consuming over 300,000 kg of bracken fiddlehead per year.  The demand was so high that bracken had to be imported from Siberia (Smith, 1986).   In China and Japan, bracken fiddleheads are canned and eaten in soups as sawarbi, and they are also popular in Korea (North Woods, 2006).  They have also been used to brew beer in Scandinavia (Camus et al, 1991).



           Harvesting techniques have varied among Native American peoples in the Paciific Northwest.  The Quinault were digging bracken rhizomes in August, Lummi and Skokomish of Washington dug rhizomes after weather turned cold.  Skagit dug ferns at Birdsview, only selecting those that ooze juice (Gunther, 1945).  The Carrier of Northern B.C, on the other hand, harvested in early spring when the plant was beginning to sprout (Leidl and Sheck, ND). 

           Information concerning the current commercial harvest of fiddleheads in the Pacific Northwest is vague.  Lady Fern fiddleheads are distributed by Mycological to stores and restaurants in the Willamette Valley as harvesters bring them along with their mushrooms, but as the number of permits issued for commercial harvesting in the Willamette National Forest reflects, commercial harvesting in Oregon is not a large economic endeavor. Although Sunrise Asian Market in Eugene carries packaged dry and fresh bracken fiddleheads, the store has never carried locally gathered fiddleheads.  They are imported from China.  This implies that there is a demand for bracken fern, but the commercial aspect of harvesting them either is not significant, or is not important enough to harvesters near Eugene.  Rob Ginn from the Sweet Home district of the Willamette National Forest (2006) mentioned that the only two permits for fiddleheads he has written in the last few years have been for Asian women, who do not gather enough to warrant a commercial permit. 


          Policy surrounding fiddlehead gathering reflects the small amount of harvesters in the Pacific Northwest, however, in some places, permits are issued. Only the Middle Fork and Sweet Home districts require permits to harvest fiddleheads.  The Detroit and Mckenzie districts require permits only for harvesting whole plants.  The permit fee for fiddleheads in the Sweet Home district is $20, and they can sell no more than $300 worth of permits.  The fee for fiddleheads in the Middle Fork district varies with how much a person will gather.  There is a $250 at minimum fine for removing a nontimber forest product without a permit, but this is more of a problem with other products like beargrass and moss that have high commercial value. 


     As Rob Ginn mentioned in an interview (comm.. 2006), the higher the price, the more likely a product will be stolen.    Ginn also said that it takes aggressive action to damage the bracken population.  This is why management in the Willamette National Forest contrasts greatly with the San Bernardino National Forest where in 1997, 16,520 pounds of bracken were removed from the forest and 381 permits were issued, and harvesting is more strictly regulated (Anderson et al, 2000).  Contrast these numbers with the two to three permits issued for fiddleheads in the Middle Fork district and two permits per year in the Sweet Home district.  John and Rob Ginn noted in our conversations that these numbers don’t necessarily reflect the extent of harvesting though.  The Willamette National Forest’s budget is constantly being reduced; they suffer from lack of personnel, and it is difficult to keep track of what is happening on Forest Service land.

*Compiled from a paper by Sarah Farnsworth