“The fiddlehead’s total antioxidant activity is twice that of blueberries.”
– DR. JOHN DELONG
Fiddlehead greens, the young, tightly curled fronds of the indigenous wild ostrich fern (Matteucia struthiopteris), are a delectable spring vegetable and rite of the season. Fiddleheads as a food source have been well known to Canada’s First Nations for many years.
Research being done by Agr iculture and Agr i-Food Canada (AAFC) scientist Dr. John DeLong and his colleagues is now proving that fiddleheads are not only delicious but also have many health benefits.
Working from his laboratory at the Atlantic Food and Horticulture Research Centre in Kentville, Nova Scotia, DeLong has been studying the nutritional composition of fiddleheads for a number of years. In addition to being a good source of dietary fibre and being low in sodium, fiddleheads contain vitamins A and C, niacin, potassium, phosphorus, iron, and magnesium. Interestingly, the brilliant-green fiddleheads also contain significant amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
“Nutritionally, the fiddlehead is similar to spinach, which we know as being a ‘good for you’ vegetable,” explains Dr. DeLong. “But unlike spinach, fiddleheads contain this EPA omega-3 fatty acid, as well as high concentrations of antioxidants. Both omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, which could make them very useful in the treatment and prevention of many diseases.”
“The fiddlehead’s total antioxidant activity is twice that of blueberries,” adds Dr. DeLong.
Although he regularly enjoys fiddleheads in meals, DeLong stresses that fiddleheads must never be eaten raw, due to the potential for harmful micro-flora and fauna to be caught and held in the vegetable’s tightly curled fronds. “They need to be well washed and fully cooked.” He also notes it is important to harvest them before the tightly curled fronds begin to unfurl, which is before they are 10 to 12 cm high. If they are too mature, they will have a bitter, unpleasant taste.
While the current demand for fiddleheads is adequately supplied by wild harvesting, further interest in the plant for its nutritional qualities may well lead to opportunities for agricultural producers to take an innovative step forward into raising this unique crop.
DeLong is also currently working with a colleague at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro, investigating the inclusion of the plant as a nutrient additive that could be used in livestock and poultry feeds, for example to produce omega-3-rich eggs and pork. “If we were able to use a fiddlehead meal as an additive,” Dr. DeLong says, “it may be a useful source of an important new dietary ingredient.”