Thursday, October 20, 2011

Inspiring Fiddlehead Ferns

Gentle fiddleheads
sprout like no characters
in earthly paradise

-Bosha Kawabata

The Fiddlehead fern is known botanically as Matteuccia struthiopteris (pronounced mat-TEW-kee-ah struth-ee-OH-ter-us), so named to honor Carlo Matteucci, a 19th century Italian physicist. Struthiopteris refers to the fronds which reminded some taxonomist of ostrich (genus Struthio) feathers. Other common names include Ostrich fern, for obvious reasons, and Shuttlecock fern. "Shuttlecock" because the array of spore-bearing fertile fronds that are produced in early spring resemble that thing you whack in a game of badminton.

Other botanical names applied occasionally to this fern have included Matteuccia pennsylvanica, Pteris nodulosa, Struthiopteris filicastrum, Struthiopteris pensylvanica, and Osmunda struthiopteris. Just so you know; it's not that important.

The name, Fiddlehead, could just as well be given to most any fern for their young fronds resemble the scroll or crosier of a violin as they emerge in spring. But I think the name is probably applied to Matteuccia because of its popularity as a spring delicacy, and the fiddlehead is what foragers look for.

Novice foragers should beware. Eating the wrong fiddlehead can make one ill. Matteuccia has a brown, papery covering at the base of the shoots. Other ferns may have fuzzy shoots or shiny green ones. Matteuccia can also be identified by a distinct groove on the front of mature fronds, the absence of spores on the back, a crown-like structure at the base of the fronds, and underground rhizomes growing outward from the crown. If that sounds like too much trouble, look for harvested fiddleheads in the northeastern U.S. at some farmers markets in the spring.

Matteuccia is a graceful garden fern from the moment the fiddleheads begin to emerge, inspiring poets and artists with its elegance. It grows to 6 feet tall, but more often to 4 feet. It spreads to 5 feet to 8 feet. The foliage is deciduous.

Native Matteuccia can be found growing in sandy soils near riverbanks and streams from southern Alaska to northern Virginia, but can be found in gardens from USDA climate zones 2 through 10. That's a very wide range, indeed.

Choose a site for yours in partial to full shade. Soil should be consistently moist, but well-drained and acidic (pH 5.6 to 6.0). Sandy loam is recommended. To determine if your soil needs amendment, take a sample to your nearby Cooperative Extension Service for analysis. Follow the instructions you receive.

If the soil needs no added sand, cultivation should not be necessary. Remove all traces of weeds before planting. Space container grown plants 24 inches to 36 inches apart. Bare root plants may be planted closer. Dig planting holes into the soil a little less deep than the depth of the growing container.  Water the plants in the pots, then drain.  Place the ferns into the holes and back-fill, watering as you go. Press soil around the root balls. Do not cover entirely the root balls with soil. The tops should be slightly exposed. Add a top-dressing of mulch around the plants, not on top of them, about 1 inch deep.

Matteuccia is perfect for moist, shady woodland gardens, native plant collections and wet areas near streams or ponds. Suitable companions include astilbes and hostas. Early spring wildflowers like Phacelia, Trillium, Claytonia, Sanguinaria, and Erythronium can be planted beneath them. You'll be inspired.

Fiddlehead fern!
Malachite blossom-
unfurl your sweet
head and wave
delicate jade fingers;
you darling jewel of
veridian tang.
My tongue sweats
at the very first
hint of your rising

--Andromeda Jazmon, from Esperanto: Ode to Green

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