Scientific Name(S): Matteuccia struthiopteris (L.) Tod. Family Aspleniaceae (Athyroideae)
Common Name(S): Ostrich fern
Botany: The ostrich fern is a common fern that grows in the northeastern US and in large parts of Canada.
History: Fiddleheads (the young shoot tops) of the ostrich fern are a seasonal delicacy, harvested commercially throughout the northeastern US and coastal Canadian provinces. This spring vegetable had been a regular part of the diet of Canadian settlers by the early 1700s. Unlike some ferns that have been considered carcinogenic or toxic, this fern had been considered to be nontoxic. Recent experience, however, indicates that it has the potential to induce severe food poisoning when not cooked properly. The ferns are available canned, frozen or fresh.
Uses of Ostrich Fern:
Ostrich fern has been used as a seasonal delicacy.
Side Effects of Ostrich Fern:
Adverse effects due to undercooking ostrich ferns include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, and GI illness.
Toxicology: Boiling the yound fiddleheads of the fern is believed to deactivate the potentially toxic properties of the plant. Recently, several outbreaks of severe food poisoning were reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Affected individuals had eaten raw or lightly cooked fiddleheads of the ostrich fern in New York and western Canada. The ferns associated with toxicity had often been eaten in restaurants, where the fiddle heads had been blanched or sauteed for only two minutes or less. However, when the ferns had been boiled for ten minutes prior to being sauteed, no illness occurred at the same restaurants. Symptoms were repoted within 12 hours; nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramping were the most commonly reported adverse events. Consumption of fiddlehead soup was also associated with gastrointestinal illness.
Summary: Fresh fiddlehead ferns have only recently become widely available in restaurants. Because many vegetables are now only lightly sauteed or blanched (rather than being fried or boiled), patrons may be at risk for developing severe gastrointestinal illness if they eat undercooked ostrich fern fiddleheads. The CDC recommends that they should be cooked thoroughly (eg, boiling for 10 minutes) before eating.
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