Maine fiddleheads

LEARN THE FERN



What does a veteran forager
know about Maine's iconic
fiddleheads that you don't?
Curl up with Michael Burke's tale
of a tagalong day in the field.

story by
MICHAEL BURKE
photography by
DOUGLAS MERRIAM

A low-slung, green-roofed building on Wilton’s main drag, W.S. Wells & Son was likely the country’s first — and is now perhaps its only — fiddlehead processing plant. Its owner, 57-year-old Butch Wells, opens up his warehouse each spring, cleans out the cobwebs, then sits back and waits for the fiddleheaders to appear. He doesn’t summon them. He doesn’t hire them. He barely knows who some of them are. They just start showing up in his driveway in mid- to late April, when the mornings are still cold and the snowmelt off the mountains renders all of western Maine green and damp.

The tightly curled, emerald fronds of the fiddlehead — the immature Matteuccia struthiopteris, also known as the ostrich fern — are a cult food in northern New England and one of the few wild edibles that Mainers systematically harvest. Medieval Europeans ascribed them medicinal and magical powers, from curing toothaches to conferring invisibility, and to me, they have long seemed similarly arcane. Each spring, I wonder about the livelihoods of the fiddleheaders I see hawking their harvest alongside Route 2. Where do they go in search of their ferns? How long does it take to fill one of their beat-up plastic buckets? So one April day, I went knocking at W.S. Wells & Son to ask Butch whether the season had started yet and whether one of his pickers might take me out fiddleheading.

Maine fiddleheads

Butch thought for a minute. “There’s one fellow who might do for you,” he said, struggling to remember the name. “It’s an odd one,” he muttered, and he furrowed his brow. “Blood,” he said, after a while. “Colis Blood might take you.”

A couple of Sundays later, I pulled up outside Colis Blood’s mobile home in North Jay. It was at 8:01 a.m., and Colis was sitting in his idling pickup, waiting on me to head out. Colis is 83, born and raised in Maine. He greeted me good-naturedly but didn’t waste time on chitchat. “Well,” he said, in a raspy voice pitched high, “guess we ought to get going.”

Some fiddleheaders go foraging for the income; a good one can make a few thousand dollars during the three-to-five–week season. Others — like Colis, who is retired with a pension — take their foraging seriously but are mostly in it for the love of the landscape or the solitude. It’s a bit like fishing, but for ferns.

I can’t reveal exactly where Colis took me. Like fishermen, fiddleheaders guard their best spots. We drove a while, parked on the side of a dirt road east of Weld, then set out across a brushy flat within earshot of a brook that feeds Webb Lake. Colis toted a nylon mesh bag, which once held 10 pounds of onions, and not much else. As we walked, my lesson commenced.

I can’t reveal where Colis took me. Like fishermen, fiddleheaders guard their best spots.

“Fiddleheads grow alongside rivers and streams after the high water recedes,” he explained. “Under some shade trees too, but not too shady.” He walked with his head down, keeping an eye out for ferns but also watching his step. Colis is short and stocky and looks good for an octogenarian, but he’s had one heart attack, five bypass grafts, and three stents inserted into his arteries. We took our time navigating the tangled floodplain.

The ground beneath us was silty and spongy, the trees a mix of ash and oak, although not terribly dense. There was just enough cover to protect the ground from frost and the fiddleheads from too much sun, which would hasten their maturation and cause them to unfurl. We stepped gingerly on stones across a rivulet feeding the brook, then ducked under a leaning pine tree, which Colis said to make note of, so it could serve as a marker on our way back.

“I’ve picked this area already,” he said, his eyes scanning the ground anyway. He pointed to a light-colored, feathery fern at his feet. “That one’s a cinnamon fern,” he said. “They’re no good.” Then he bent over and snapped a bright-green spiral off the stem of another fern nearby. “Here’s what we’re after,” he said, holding it out to me. I had a hard time telling the difference, but I didn’t admit it.

Fiddlehead fronds grow in clusters of up to a dozen-ish from a single, bulbous base. When they’re ready for picking, they’re somewhere north of 8 inches tall. And since fronds grow at varying rates, one shoot may have a head ripe for plucking while another has already “gone by,” as Colis puts it. An adept fiddleheader knows at a glance which shoots are ripe and which to ignore. At one point, Colis held out to me what seemed like a perfectly serviceable fiddlehead.

Maine fiddleheads, Learn the Fern
Colis Blood picking fiddleheads
Processing Maine fiddleheads
staff at Wilton’s W.S. Wells and Son
For Colis Blood and other fiddlehead foragers, a day in the field takes its toll on the back. Bottom row: The staff at Wilton’s W.S. Wells and Son wash and sort the foragers’ bounty.

“See that hole in the center?” he asked, pointing into the tight green heart of the scroll. And I did, just barely. “We call that the doughnut hole,” he said. “That means it’s no good. It’s gone by. If I bring a bunch in like this, Butch’ll just throw them away.”

We tromped another quarter-mile before Colis started picking in earnest, taking a knee beside a thick cluster of ferns and going to work. His only harvesting tool was his long thumbnail. Most ferns he simply grasped between his thumb and forefinger, breaking the heads off at the stem like one might snap an asparagus stalk. When they were stubborn, he used his thumbnail like a knife, slicing off the head. One fern he leaned down and twisted a few degrees sideways to show me where the head was dusted with brownish-black flakes. “You don’t want that one,” he said. “That stuff shows up early, when the fern isn’t ready. If you eat that, you’ll want to be near a bathroom.”

The brown chaff is likely the remnant of the papery crown that immature ferns break out of, and some pickers have no problem simply washing these flecks off. There’s a lot, in fact, that fiddlehead fans don’t agree on. Some, I’ve learned, do indeed eat the fiddleheads of the cinnamon fern. I’ve heard others insist that all fiddleheads must be boiled in order to prevent food poisoning, either from bacteria or some innate, if minor, toxicity. Still others scoff at this notion, which can turn a bowl of bright fiddleheads to mush, and instead simply wash theirs in cold water. The Centers for Disease Control have fielded several reports of foodborne illness related to undercooked fiddleheads, but the agency has never determined a cause; the UMaine Cooperative Extension, meanwhile, advocates 10–15 minutes of boiling or steaming. I myself have happily eaten many helpings of fiddleheads sautéed in butter and seem no worse for it. On the plate, as in the field, fiddleheads are the stuff of hearsay and lore.

Maine fiddleheads

I had imagined that fiddlehead pickers knew where to find whole swaths of the things, had pictured us cutting through them like combines through the wheat fields, harvesting hundreds in each sweep. Not so. Fiddleheads don’t seem to like company. Colis and I pivoted our way across the landscape, from a cluster of ferns here to another over there to yet another a few yards away. Rarely did we find ourselves bending over to harvest from more than one plant at a time.

We were, of course, traversing someone else’s land. Historically, this hasn’t been an issue for fiddleheaders like Colis, who benefit from Maine’s long tradition of “permissive access” — or the assumption of permission to use unimproved private property if landowners haven’t posted otherwise. Last year, however, the state legislature considered a bill that would prohibit foraging on private land without explicit landowner permission. The bill died in committee, but it wasn’t the first legislative effort to rein in commercial foraging, and it won’t be the last. Advocates for a more regulated harvest cite threats to resources, lost revenue for landowners, and liability issues.

That last point came to mind as Colis and I made our way over a few fallen, decaying limbs in a particularly vine-ridden patch of woods. One second, he was up; the next, he was splayed out, face first in the soft, green earth. I asked if he was all right, and Colis waved me off, peeling himself off the ground slowly, in stages. I thought of his eight decades, his heart attack, and his stents and bypasses, and I worried about the long hours he spends in the woods by himself.

“I carry nitro with me,” Colis said, when he was back on his feet. “I’ve never had to use it, but I always have it.” He brushed himself off, patted his round belly, and made a joke about how nicely it fit into the hollow he’d fallen into.

"Mother Nature tells us when to start, and she tells us when to stop too."

Later, I asked how his parents had come by his unusual name. He wasn’t sure, Colis said, but he came from French-Canadian stock; he thought his folks might have liked that colis means “little parcel” in French. Colis’s western Maine roots run deep (his father was born “right there,” he said, pointing across Webb Lake, “at the foot of Tumbledown Mountain”), although he spent decades away, working 31 years as a lab technician for the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. As we picked, he told me a story about a rabbit named Alex, how he’d had the job of injecting Alex with “hot HIV” so that scientists could experiment with treatments. Alex, it seemed, never developed full-blown AIDS, and no one ever figured out why.

I asked Colis how long he planned to pick that day. Until about 4 p.m., he said, which was a typical day. I asked if his partner, Marie, ever came out foraging with him. He shook his head. “I don’t know why not,” he said — although, standing next to him, seeing our breath in the cold morning air, I had an inkling. Then, out of nowhere, Colis said, “I lost my 53-year-old daughter last October. She got bladder cancer, and the treatments were awful.” He was quiet a moment. “My faith tells me we’ll be together again, though.” I didn’t know what to say, except that I was sorry. And then we went back to our picking.

I felt very much like I was fishing with a friend — or rather that I was learning to fish, and Colis was my teacher, telling tales as he went along. We talked and picked and ambled slowly along from thicket to thicket. After a few hours, I was surprised to realize we had filled half our bag, and it was starting to get heavy.

Maine Fiddleheads, foraging around
Fiddleheads

When I left Colis around noon, the sky was overcast. The afternoon would see a quarter-inch of rain and a high temperature just over 50 degrees. Colis stayed out picking another four hours. Later, he told me he’d totaled 25 pounds on the day. It was his best outing of the season, during which he would manage to harvest 302 pounds, according to his very orderly records. Back at Butch Wells’s warehouse, his daylong effort earned him about $60.

Butch told me in mid-May that his pickers had so far brought in some 12,000 pounds of fiddleheads. These he spread out on big trays to wash off and cull, tossing away any that didn’t look right; the rest he bagged up for sale in markets and stores. Butch hoped to process 25,000 pounds before the season was over, but even with a couple of weeks (at best) to go, he didn’t seem concerned. “Halfway there,” he said cheerfully. “Mother Nature tells us when to start, and she tells us when to stop too.” By month’s end, Butch would process just shy of 26,000 pounds. His best picker brought in 4,200 of those and made roughly $10,000.

The rest of that month, I occasionally saw Colis’s truck parked on the side of the road, next to this or that stream around Wilton. A few times, I pulled over to look for him, but he was far enough out in his pursuit of the fern that I couldn’t spot him. I pictured him bent over, somewhere far upstream, along the banks of a brook where the canopy was broken and no one else had yet picked, perhaps thinking about lab rabbits, or his daughter, or his faith, or whatever else comes into the mind of a man by himself in the woods.

Maine fiddleheads
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Michael D Burke

Michael Burke is a professor of English at Colby College and the author of The Same River Twice: A Boatman's Journey Home.