What part of a fern can you eat?

Ferns are a type of non-flowering plant that have been around for over 300 million years. Many parts of some fern species are actually edible and provide nutritional value. The most commonly eaten parts of ferns include the fronds, fiddleheads, and roots.


The fronds of some fern species can be eaten either raw or cooked. The fronds contain vitamins A, C, and B complex as well as minerals like calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Some fern fronds that can be consumed include:

  • Bracken (Pteridium) – Has a nutty flavor. Needs to be cooked to remove toxins.
  • Cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) – Has a cinnamon taste. Can be eaten raw or cooked.
  • Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) – Has a sweet, licorice-like flavor. Eat fronds raw or cooked.
  • Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) – Fronds have a nutty taste when cooked.
  • Royal fern (Osmunda regalis) – Fronds are mucilaginous when raw but taste nutty when cooked.

The fronds should be harvested before the fern is fully mature. Older fronds tend to get tough and unpleasantly bitter. For optimal flavor and texture, choose young, brightly colored fronds.


Fiddleheads are the furled fronds of fern plants collected while still in the immature stage. Some species of fern fiddleheads that can be eaten include:

  • Lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina)
  • Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)
  • Cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum)
  • Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum)

Fiddleheads have a crunchy texture and taste slightly nutty or grassy. They contain vitamins A, B complex, C, and E as well as minerals like iron, thiamine, potassium, and manganese.

Fiddleheads are harvested when they are still tightly furled. If the fern has started to unfurl, it is past its prime. The best time to pick fiddleheads is in early spring when they are just a few inches tall.

When preparing fiddleheads, clean them thoroughly since soil tends to get trapped between the fronds. Fiddleheads need to be cooked thoroughly before eating to remove toxins. Boiling for 10-15 minutes or sautéing works well. They can be eaten on their own or used in other cooked dishes.


The roots or rhizomes of some fern species can also be dug up and eaten. They tend to have a sweet, nutty or starchy flavor. Ferns with edible roots include:

  • Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) – Has starchy roots that can be dried and ground into a flour.
  • Cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) – Roots have a sweet, cinnamon-like flavor.
  • Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) – Roots taste nutty.
  • Royal fern (Osmunda regalis) – Roots are very starchy when cooked.
  • Male fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) – Roots are sweet when cooked.

Only harvest fern roots selectively, not in mass amounts, to avoid destroying the entire plant. Thoroughly clean roots and remove all remaining soil before cooking. Roots can be boiled, steamed, roasted or fried before eating.

Which fern parts should not be eaten?

While many fern species do have edible parts, some ferns should be avoided. Ferns contain various plant toxins that need to be properly prepared and cooked before eating. Below are some ferns with toxic parts that should not be consumed:

  • Pteridium aquilinum (bracken fern) – Contains ptaquiloside, a carcinogen and toxin. Only consume fronds after extensive boiling.
  • Athyrium filix-femina (lady fern) – Contains filicin and filixic acid toxins. Only eat fiddleheads after cooking.
  • Cryptogramma crispa (parsley fern) – Entire plant is toxic when raw.
  • Equisetum spp. (horsetails) – Contains the enzyme thiaminase that destroys Vitamin B1.
  • Polystichum munitum (western swordfern) – All parts are toxic.
  • Pteridium esculentum (brake fern) – Contains ptaquiloside toxin.

In addition, only eat fiddleheads and fronds from young, healthy ferns. Older fronds tend to concentrate toxins. Avoid any ferns growing in polluted areas. Only harvest what you will consume and do not overpick fern fronds.

Identifying edible ferns

Since many ferns contain toxins, it is crucial to properly identify the exact species before consuming. Below are some tips for identifying edible fern species:

  • Learn identifying features – Study field guides or resources to learn key traits like frond shapes, growth patterns, textures, and colors for known edible species in your region.
  • Look for fiddleheads – Edible species like ostrich fern and lady fern sprout fiddleheads that are safe to eat when cooked.
  • Crush and smell – Rub or crush the fronds. Edible ferns like licorice fern and cinnamon fern have distinct smells.
  • Observe habitats – Learn where local edible species grow. For example, ostrich ferns grow in riparian areas in many parts of North America.
  • When in doubt, leave it out – Do not consume any fern you cannot completely identify as edible.

Having an expert help identify fern species when first starting out can be extremely useful. Many universities, nature centers, or foraging groups offer fern identification classes and resources as well.

How to cook with edible fern parts

Once you have positively identified an edible fern, that fern’s fronds, fiddleheads, and roots can be prepared in many delicious ways:


  • Sautéed fern fronds – Remove frond stems then chop into pieces. Sauté in olive oil or butter until tender.
  • Fern pesto – Blend chopped raw fronds with olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan, lemon juice.
  • Fern chips – Toss raw fronds in oil, then roast at 400°F until crispy.
  • Coconut curry fern – Sauté fronds, onion, spices, and curry paste. Add coconut milk and simmer.


  • Roasted fiddleheads – Toss boiled fiddleheads in oil and roast at 450°F until browned.
  • Fiddlehead soup – Simmer fiddleheads in broth with potatoes and cream.
  • Stir fried fiddleheads – Sauté boiled fiddleheads with garlic, chili paste, and spices.
  • Fiddlehead salad – Top mixed greens with boiled, cooled fiddleheads and dressing.


  • Root vegetable medley – Roast chopped fern roots along with potatoes, parsnips, carrots.
  • Fern root flour – Dry and grind washed roots into a gluten-free flour for baking.
  • Root tea – Simmer washed roots like cinnamon fern then strain to make tea.

When cooking fern fronds, fiddleheads or roots, start with smaller amounts to test taste and texture preferences.

Preserving edible ferns

Some ways to preserve harvested edible fern parts include:

  • Blanching – Boil fiddleheads or fronds briefly then freeze or can.
  • Pickling – Pack boiled fiddleheads or roots into sterilized jars with vinegar.
  • Drying – Use a food dehydrator or low oven to dry fronds, fiddleheads, roots.
  • Freezing – Blanch then freeze fronds, fiddleheads, roots for months of storage.

Proper drying and blanching removes toxins and helps preserve texture and taste. Store preserved fern products in airtight containers and refrigerate after opening.

Nutrition benefits of eating fiddleheads and fronds

Here is an overview of the nutrition found in fiddleheads and fronds of common edible fern species:

Fern Part Vitamins Minerals Other Nutrients
Fiddleheads Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Vitamin K, B vitamins Manganese, Copper, Potassium, Magnesium Omega-3 fatty acids, Antioxidants, Fiber
Fronds Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, B vitamins Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Iron Protein, Fiber

As shown above, fiddleheads and fronds contain an excellent array of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, omega-3s, and more. Eating these fern parts provide many benefits:

  • Antioxidants – Help protect cells from damage and lower inflammation. Useful in preventing disease.
  • Fiber – Improves digestion and heart health. Help regulate blood sugar.
  • Vitamin A – Important for eye health and immune function.
  • Vitamin C – Boosts immunity and acts as an antioxidant. Aids iron absorption.
  • Omega-3s – Reduce inflammation and lower heart disease risk factors.

Incorporating more edible fern parts into your diet can be an excellent way to increase consumption of vital nutrients and improve overall wellbeing.

Risks of eating toxic ferns

While many fern species have edible parts, consuming the wrong ferns can cause toxic side effects. Potential risks include:

  • Nausea, vomiting – Stomach upset is commonly seen after ingesting toxic ferns.
  • Numbness, tingling – Toxins in some ferns act as neurotoxins, affecting the nerves.
  • Diarrhea – Intestinal problems can arise from ingesting toxins.
  • Dizziness, weakness – Some fern toxins cause muscle weakness or disorientation.
  • Cancer – Specific toxins like ptaquiloside are linked to DNA damage and cancer.
  • Irregular heartbeat – Certain fern chemicals can disrupt heart rhythm.

Consuming unknown or poisonous ferns should be treated as a medical emergency. Seek immediate medical treatment if adverse symptoms occur after eating fern fronds, fiddleheads or roots.

Foraging for edible ferns sustainably

When harvesting ferns for food, it is essential to gather fronds, fiddleheads and roots sustainably. Here are best practices for sustainable foraging:

  • Only take what you need and will actually use.
  • Avoid overpicking from any one area.
  • Leave some fern fronds untouched for photosynthesis.
  • Gather ferns sporadically, not repeatedly in the same spot.
  • Take fronds from larger, mature plants that can regrow.
  • Dig roots selectively, disturbing as little as possible.
  • Do not pick ferns in contaminated urban areas.
  • Follow any local foraging regulations and permits.

Sustainable harvesting allows the fern to regrow for future harvests. Make sure your foraging does not damage fragile fern ecosystems.


Many fern species have edible fronds, fiddleheads, and roots that can be prepared in delicious ways. Ferns provide beneficial vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and nutrients when properly identified and cooked. Avoid toxicity by only consuming known edible species after thorough cleaning and cooking. When harvesting fronds or roots, do so selectively and sustainably to conserve fern populations for the future. With proper precautions, integrating ferns into your diet can be an exciting and nutritious culinary adventure.

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