I’ve never gone seeking treasure in a field, but on an overcast April day my daughter and I slipped away to a nearby hillside on a quest for a local springtime jewel: edible fiddlehead ferns.
The rubber boots I wore were two sizes too big and with each step through last year’s fallen leaves, my heels and toes slid against their boundaries. I was off-balance, darting back and forth like a startled deer, and I didn’t realize that I was stepping on something other than leaves.
Caroline figured it out first. “Fiddleheads!” she cried, squatting down in that way kids do where their knees hug their ears and their bottoms hover over the ground. She brushed the leaves to the side and uncoverd a large brown bulb protruding from the dirt—round and about the size of her fist. It was covered in thin paper, similar to an onion, and underneath the skin were several nascent stalks curled up and huddled together like a family saying grace, each spiraled head bowed reverently towards the center.
Our initial success thrilled us. We thought this would be hard, but the hillside was infected with these strange boils. Caroline told me they are called crowns and, somehow, she could spot them through the brush. “There’s one!” she said, pointing to a section of decaying leaves. I squinted in an effort to see what she saw. “There’s another!” she squealed, pointing at a second mottled sea of brown. I couldn’t see the crowns unless I swept the debris away with a stick, or stepped on them with my enormous boots—which was mostly what happened.
We tramped around the hillside like this: me in my heavy footwear, Caroline dropping into her birdlike squat. There were fiddlehead crowns galore, but what we were really after was the sprouted version.
A sprouted fiddlehead crown has breached its onion skin barrier and begun its long unrolling towards the sky. We had never seen a sprouted crown in real life, only in pictures on the internet. Apparently, some of the green stalks are so determined to grow that they poke holes in anything above them—not only in the thin paper, but also in the dead leaves that have covered them during the winter. As the fiddleheads rise up in a great, unfurling hallelujah they do so adorned in layers and layers of leaf necklaces, which float over their stalks like towering African neck rings.
We had hoped to find a whole chorus of sprouted fiddleheads ready to be plucked and carried home in the plastic shopping bag that hung halfway out of my pocket. But several careful forays across the hillside didn’t produce a single escaped sprout amongst all of the padlocked crowns.
We were too early.
I decided to take a chance on a portion of the hillside that was littered with fallen logs. The whole situation felt precarious because there were invisible logs stacked underneath the visible ones. I had to maneuver even more carefully there to keep from toppling.
“Mommy, stop,” Caroline, the fiddlehead spotter, called. “They are all around you!”
She pointed at the ground surrounding my feet. I frozen mid-stride with my legs spread wide and I bent down to investigate.
More of the same.
Brown crowns were indeed everywhere, but none showed any signs of opening their clenched fists. I deepened my crouch and brushed away the leaves that had gathered underneath a nearby log. I opened my hand and ran it along the ground, palm down, doing my work by feel instead of by sight. I hit a lump and paused—closed. I felt another lump, but as I ran my fingers over the center expecting another clenched fist, I was astonished to discover that this hand had slender fingers.
My head was near the ground, angled so that one ear touched the leaves underneath me. I could see the crown. It had been broken open by four green stalks that stood straight and tall before curling into a graceful P at the head. Now I understood why it’s called a crown: with its dramatic green spires it looked like something the queen would wear.
I waved Caroline over and we plucked the delicate shoots. They were so small that all four of them fit easily in my palm. It would not be a feast as we had hoped, but we would be satisfied with a taste. I held our treasure carefully, like I was afraid the sprouts might have curled back into the leaves at any moment. I didn’t put them in the plastic bag, but walked them all the way home in my open hand.
We passed our garden on the way inside. Caroline ran into the house with our news, the screen door slammed as she went. I lingered outside with the fiddlehead tendrils, noticing the neat rows of mulch that my husband had placed over his unsprouted seeds. With some effort, we will reap a great harvest from his work. It wouldn’t be long until our kids run barefoot and sunburned around the yard, stopping to shove handfuls of juicy blackberries into their mouths.
But there is something to be said about the grace of a hillside of fiddleheads. I reaped what I did not sow; I harvested what I did not tend. I looked back down at my hand, at the four green gems that were waiting there for anyone to take. Treasures hidden in a field, indeed.
I just needed to work on my timing.
Cover image by James Ahlberg.