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Spring Foraging: Fiddleheads & Ramps

By Tom Richardson; Videography by AJ Derosa

The arrival of spring in New England is heralded by many natural wonders. For some, it’s the arrival of herring in the coastal rivers. For others, it’s the sight of warblers flitting through deciduous forests. And for foragers like Clay and Zoe Groves, it’s the emergence of wild fiddleheads and ramps in the muddy floodplains.

 

Zoe Groves forages for fiddles on a river floodplain in New Hampshire.

I got a personal lesson in finding and harvesting these two spring delicacies with the Groves in early May, 2023, near their home in Jackson, New Hampshire, at the foot of the White Mountains. Here, freestone rivers flow fast and cold from the Whites as the snow melts, but as the water levels recede, the fertile floodplains are exposed. And this is prime habitat for ferns and ramps.

Fiddlehead shoots are usually covered in a brown, papery husk. The stalk on the left is past harvesting length.

Fiddleheads, which are the early shoots of ostrich ferns before the long stems unfurl, can be found throughout New England. The timing of their emergence from the rich floodplain humus varies according to latitude, with Massachusetts fiddleheads appearing about a month earlier—usually early to mid-April—than those in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire (late April-early May). The farther north you travel, the later you’ll find fiddles. Of course, much depends on weather and snow cover, so hopeful foragers must check their hot spots frequently to reap the rewards.

Ramps grow in the same river floodplains as fiddleheads.

Fiddleheads and ramps both grow in muddy areas that flood in spring. In our case, we found both species growing in a large, boggy area at the bend of a river. Trust me, you are going to need boots in this game!

The fiddleheads are found in tight clumps, or clutches, with three to four stalks per plant. Be sure to confirm the identity of the plant, so as not to accidentally harvest and consume other fern species, which can be poisonous. The young, bright-green fiddlehead shoots are typically covered by a brown, paper-like “husk”, which is easily removed and should not be eaten. Fiddleheads also have a deep, u-shaped groove or runnel along the length of the smooth stalk, which helps identify them. If you want to play it really safe, buy the Peterson Field Guide to Ferns, available on Amazon.

Fiddleheads are the young, curled stalks of the ostrich fern.

The optimal time to harvest fiddleheads is when the fern heads have just emerged from the ground and are tightly curled in their namesake fiddlehead appearance. Simply break off the end of the fiddlehead with your fingers, but leave at least one of the shoots intact so as not to kill the entire plant. When the fern stalks reach a height of five or six inches, they are past their prime.

Ramps emerge at around the same time as fiddleheads. These tasty plants have broad green leaves and feature a spicy, garlicky-oniony scent and taste. Every part of the plant is edible, including the subterranean bulb, but Clay likes to harvest just one or two leaves per ramp, to help ensure sustainability.

Because ramps and fiddleheads are exposed to untreated river water that may contain harmful bacteria, they should be thoroughly washed and blanched or cooked before being eaten, to avoid the risk of salmonella and other ailments. On the day we foraged together, Clay and Zoe prepared a fiddlehead-and-ramp feast on a portable propane stove. Clay simply sauteed the ramps and fiddleheads in a pan with butter, then added an egg, which he scrambled. The results were delicious!

There are many other methods of cooking fiddleheads and ramps, including pickling them, but many folks simply sauté them in butter for a crispy side dish.

 

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