Although ferns are familiar plants having graced parlors and porches since Victorian times, there’s a certain feeling of magic to them when encountered in the woods. In the early spring they rise like wispy, spirited musicians presenting tightly scrolled stems resembling the heads of fiddles.

Before unfurling into feathery fronds, the fiddleheads can be a delicious addition to a dinner menu. However, not all ferns are edible. In North America the safest to consume is the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), which can be identified by a U-shaped groove, like a celery stalk, on the side of the stem that faces toward the coiled top. Be kind to the fern population and harvest less than half of the fiddleheads from a plant to ensure future cycles of growth.

A couple of other ferns are considered edible but must be cooked. However, it is still debatable whether or not the bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum syn. Pteris aquilina) is edible. Needless to say, when in doubt as to the identity of a fern, don’t eat it.

Whether or not you are interested in ferns as a delicacy, there’s a lot of magic afoot in fernland. First of all, early spring is a special in between time. While many plants herald the fullness of nature that is to come, ferns announce the return of the fairies from their sidhe at Beltane. Ferms mark a simple wooded area by day and a magical fairyland by night. In full summer, these graceful bowers of Queen Mab will stand in filtered sunlight and cast spells of dreamy beauty.

According to legend, a woodland fern produces a breathtakingly beautiful flower once a year. At the stroke of midnight on Midsummer’s Eve it blooms only for an instant. For anyone lucky enough to pluck it at that moment, it will lead the way to hidden treasure.

But alas, for those of us who do not find the flower there is always magical rings of ferns. If you find one, sit or stand quietly in the center and expect the unexpected.

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