Inside a vase-shaped bunch of conspicuous, sterile fronds, you'll find the smaller fertile or fruiting fronds, up to 2 feet tall, that look like birdsí tails, with dense, dark brown feathers.
The emerging fern first takes the form of a fiddleheadótightly rolled up to resemble the curved, narrow end of a violin, with a stout base tapering upward. A papery, scaly sheath wraps this hairless, emerald-green vegetable, which varies in height as it grows. Fiddleheads of other ferns wonít kill you, but theyíre not tasty and are often too hairy to eat; bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), a favorite in Japan that appears in mid-spring, contains carcinogens.
Caution: Some deadly plants, such as poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) and water hemlock (Cicuta maculata), may look like shopping mall ferns to the novice. However, the poisonous plants lack the ostrich fernís distinctive fiddlehead.
HABITAT: Ostrich ferns grow in moist areas in partial shade. Although I've never found them in New York City, they grow in swamps in the surrounding suburbs and countryside.
FOOD USES: Fiddleheads are a much sought-after vegetable, especially among the Japanese. Their delicate flavor (donít overseason) lies somewhere between asparagus and snap peas).