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Examining fiddlehead production

November 30, 1999  By Dan Woolley

Fiddleheads – delicious wild vegetables much beloved in the regional cuisine of Maritime Canada – also appear to offer a nutritional bonanza.

Fiddleheads – delicious wild vegetables much beloved in the regional cuisine of Maritime Canada – also appear to offer a nutritional bonanza.

Research by Dr. John Delong and his Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada colleagues, Dr. Robert Prange, Dr. Charles Forney, Dr. Mark Hodges and Dr. Lihua Fan, is demonstrating that fiddleheads, which are produced by ostrich fern, has many health benefits.


Besides being low in sodium, fiddleheads are a good source of dietary fibre and contain vitamins A and C, niacin, potassium, phosphorus, iron and magnesium. Fiddleheads also contain significant amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), says Dr. DeLong, who has been studying the nutritional composition of fiddleheads at the Atlantic Food and Horticulture Research Centre in Kentville, N.S.

“Nutritionally, the fiddlehead is similar to spinach, which we know as a ‘good for you’ vegetable. But, unlike spinach, fiddleheads contain this EPA omega-3 fatty acid as well as high concentrations of phenolic compounds, a broad range of antioxidants.”

He observes that both omega-3 fatty acids, which are rare in plants, and antioxidants, have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties that could make them very useful in the treatment and prevention of many diseases, adding, “the fiddleheads’ total antioxidant activity is twice that of blueberries.”

The impetus for his research was a combination of several things, says Dr. DeLong. “A few years ago, our department put an emphasis on research investigating the healthful, nutraceutical, functional food and even pharmacological properties of common or uncommon food crops.

“My colleague, Dr. Prange, had extensive experience in the 1970s and 1980s with ostrich fern fiddleheads, so there was an historical research connection with the crop.”
As the fiddlehead harvest was a maritime tradition and basically a cottage industry, it was felt “we could focus on efforts to enlarge our knowledge base on a wild, natural plant that has played an interesting cultural role in the region,” Dr. DeLong says.

“We knew that older literature indicated that fiddleheads were healthy, but this data was 30-years old. With better analytical techniques and capacity, we felt that an investigation into the nutritional profile was in order to see how potentially healthy these plants are.”

Dr. DeLong admits scientists are unsure if fiddleheads have actual anti-inflammatory activity. “I strongly expect they do, he says. “However, this must be demonstrated in the lab.

“They are one of the most nutritious vegetable crops that we can consume. All of the health benefits associated with eating green vegetables can be applied to the fiddlehead.”

Fiddleheads are currently harvested in the wild but Dr. DeLong says they can be grown as an upland horticultural crop and managed as a perennial crop, similar to asparagus. The crop likes lots of water and establishing healthy crowns would be essential to their successful cultivation.

His future fiddlehead research will look at the effects of cooking or steaming on the nutritional, health-promoting compounds in the plant and the effect of cooking time on the bacteria and fungal populations in the tightly coiled heads of the ferns.

“This work will help Health Canada more accurately advise the public on fiddlehead preparation,” he says.

Adequate cooking to kill bacteria and fungi in fiddleheads is imperative to avoid possible gastrointestinal upsets in people who eat the ferns, says Dr. DeLong.

“One does not eat raw chicken and one should not eat raw fiddleheads.”

Although associated with the Maritime provinces, fiddleheads are also found in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.

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