I'm curious if anyone has some experience with fiddlehead toxicity. Wikipedia has it listed as "may harbour microbes, and should be washed and cooked before eating."

Most reports I'm reading online say they should be washed well and cooked for at least 10 minutes.

Now I used to eat these raw, or at most, just sautéed a little. I had a few sautéed lightly last night without any ill effects as well.

I've never been one to shy away from food just because I might be ill. After all, being ill is just part of trying new things. Still, I'm curious what the community has found.


The Source (you know which it is, right?*) says that toxicity has been proven - for a single species of fern. The exact quote is

A common species especially enjoyed in Japan and Korea, the bracken fern Pteridium aequilinium, has been found to contain a potent DNA-damaging chemical. It should be avoided. Stalks of the ostrich fern, varikous species of Matteuccia, are thought to be safer to eat.

and on another page

Bracken-fern toxins caise several blood disorders and cancer in animals that graze on this common fern (Pteridium)... Matteucia... are thought to be safer... but there's little solid information about the safety of eating ferns. It's prudent to eat fiddleheads in moderation...

So if you believe him, make sure you know they come from the correct kind of fern. I guess this isn't a problem with supermarket bought vegetables.

Nowhere (or in no location mentioned in the index under fiddleheads) does he mention an unusually high contamination of microorganisms. But if you are afraid of them carrying dangerous agents on the outside, I think that they, when grown in the wild, will harbor the usual suspects carried by animal waste (E. coli, parasites like liver flukes or tenia). But I doubt that they will be higher than from other vegetables picked from the countryside (nettles, sorrel, dandelions).

*McGee on food and cooking

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I've never heard of them containing any sort of special microbe. They're just plants, and, since they tend not to be grown in gardens (which, by their nature, often have more weird bacteria/chemicals/etc) I'd think they would be less likely to be toxic.

Unless your woodland is near some sort of environmental hazard, I wouldn't worry about any sort of toxicity. Gathering has a bad reputation in the US: we like to think food should come from the store.

There have been reports of toxicity, however they haven't been able to identify any agent, and the incidence is vanishingly small. To me, that just suggests that a wild boar look a leak on some of them, and they weren't well washed. As far as I'm concerned, this is in the category of salmonella in eggs: I'm not going to stop eating caesar salad (or chocolate mousse!) because of a half a percent chance of getting a bad egg (and the odds of getting salmonella are vastly higher than whatever this is).

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  • +1 good point. i'm amazed at how few people know what is / isn't edible in their area. – Stephano Apr 18 '11 at 21:14
  • @Stephano I don't know anything about fiddleheads to be honest, but I agree that so few people know what is edible around them. So many people would starve without their Walmart super grocery. Too few of us take the time to learn what's around them. I am constantly identifying everything as I walk around and if I don't know what it is, I find out. Good for you on that, seriously. I tell my girlfriend, if the lights go out you want me around cause we'll always have food. It may not be ribeye and mashed potatoes, but you'll never go hungry. – Escoce Mar 27 '16 at 5:19

Bracken Ferns have a well identified carcinogen that can cause esophageal cancers. We tend not to harvest these in North America. Fiddleheads (properly, the Ostrich Fern) tend to grow in wetlands which are subjected to spring floods. If there is any contaminate in the floodwater (think cattle operation upstream) then the fiddlehead would be exposed to that contaminate. Fiddleheads should also never be picked near a roadside, train tracks or hydro line. In fact, no wild foods should be taken from these areas ever! If you are confident of the area you are foraging in or have purchased from a reputable company like Norcliff, the fiddlehead can be eaten raw after normal washing.

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I was just looking up this post because last night I was up for six hours on the toilet after eating a pound of fiddleheads.

I have eaten them since I was 5 or 6. I have always loved them - well cooked with a little butter, lemon and salt. A delicacy. I live Southern Ontario and ours come from the ostrich fern which appears shortly after flood waters recede on the Ganaraska river. I was fishing and picking and eating them raw last week end - no problem. Last night I ate too many, there is no doubt. I think the vast quantity just set off a gastro reaction. I don't know where these ones came from - they were purchased at a farmer's market. I usually eat 3 - 5 cups of raw veggies each day. So, I don't have a problem with raw veggies.

So, I chalk it up to experience - moderation in everything.


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  • Moderation indeed. I've had these again from my local grocer recently. Again, ate them raw, and again, no problem. That being said, I can't say I've ever consumed more than a dozen or so. GI problems are no fun. Hope you're feeling better! – Stephano May 18 '11 at 1:12

I agree with Satanicpuppy. I've lived in Maine and harvested them there without an issue. I also didn't get them near factories or paper mills... just near my house. That's the best advice I could give you as far as gathering them.

As far as if you got them from a store, well, probably a slightly higher chance. I've eaten them raw from the store as well and never had a problem. However I do know one woman who got sick after eating them from a grocery store. That being said, I also know at least half a dozen people who've gotten sick from eating raw seafood from a grocer.

I'd be interested to know if the community here has any idea why these plants can harbor microbes so well. I've searched around the internet a bit and can't seem to find any serious tests or studies. This leads me to believe that when more than 1 person gets sick from eating something, people suddenly think it needs to be cooked until tasteless :) .

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  • +1 ha ha, indeed. I've been sick at least 2 or 3 times from raw seafood, and I'm not stopping anytime soon :) . – Stephano Apr 18 '11 at 21:21

My husband, myself and my son all developed terrible sickness within 4 hours of eating lightly cooked fiddleheads. We now have been diagnosed with blood parasites which will take a good month to clear. We will never eat fiddleheads again.These were served in one of Canada's top restaurants and after contacting the restaurant were telephoned by government Food and Safety people. This was taken very seriously by all concerned.

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    Hello and welcome to the site! You could lend credibility to your post by adding the name of the "blood parasites". (No, we don't need the name of the restaurant.) Hope you'll get well soon! – Stephie Apr 14 '15 at 5:02

All raw foods can harbor toxic microbes, especially those that grow underground. The antidote is a "kill step" of heat or irradiation. Since most of us don't irradiate foods at home, simply cooking raw products to 165F interior temp for 7 seconds will kill most pathogens. The notable exception being botulism spores which are common in soil, but they will not hatch and grow in the presence of oxygen so there is little risk. As cooks experienced with sous vide cooking know, you can pasteurize foods at lower temps if they are held there for long periods of time. I like to boil fiddleheads for about 3 minutes to paseurize them, shock them in ice water, and then sautee with butter and serve on cheesy pasta, especially primavera. Never eat them raw. The risk is too great.

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