A cloned garden

UNTIL now, my annual fiddlehead dispatch has run, like continental breakfasts , pretty much the same, but this year a horticulturist at the University of New Brunswick at Fredericton has burst forth a shining promise that must give us pause - he thinks the ostrich fern can be grown commercially and soon we shall have acres of farmland in fiddleheads. The esoteric delicacy has hitherto been limited to the wilds. This will gladden people who can't or won't seek their own each May, and will extend the fiddlehead range amazingly. New Brunswick is the appropriate place for taming the fiddlehead, since Micmac and Maliseet Indians first taught settlers from Europe to eat the things.

The season for the delicately delicious fern tips is short. Swift as mushrooms and asparagus, the shoots of the ostrich fern burst from the ground-level crowns and overnight can reach too high to be palatable. If caught just so, a few inches tall, the tender stocks curl tightly to resemble the scroll on a violin. But let that scroll extend, and the moment is lost - the shoot becomes a frond suggesting an ostrich plume and the time is gone. The ostrich fern likes stream banks and swamps, not always easy to reach, so going to cut a supply of fiddleheads makes a vernal jaunt that amounts to a rite - the Chaldees and the Druids were never more ardent in their devotions than is a down-easter when a-Maying for fiddlehead greens. Further, we fight over them.

Because of the nature of the fern, oldest of plants, I surmise this effort to cultivate fiddleheads has been like playing around with Fermat's Last Theorem. The fern has a peculiar way of reproducing, and cannot be Johnny Appleseeded by scattering from a bag. A fern doesn't have seeds, and the spore is elusive.

This caused the professor at Fredericton to go for cloning, which is a way to reproduce plants from shoots and twigs. Clone comes from the German - a twig. Sort of like grafting apples. Clone around enough, and you can have 30 acres of fiddleheads, which would help with prosperity between maple syrup and plowing. A farmer could ship them fresh, put them in tins, and freeze them. For some years now Dick and Betty and I have gone down about six miles of a certain river by canoe, and I freeze about 50 pounds - for family use, and little enough. If someday I might have a fiddlehead patch in my dooryard, like an asparagus bed, I expect I would still roam the riverbank for the real thing.

We had something of a fiddlehead tragedy here in Maine a few years back when our Great Northern Paper Company built its Golden Road. The days of driving logs to mill in the rivers were over.

The Preservationists, who had been clamoring for clean waters, claimed a victory, but in truth logistics had more effect than ecology. It had become cheaper and more efficient to build roads and buy trucks, even though the Golden Road gets its name from its expense. Officially, it is the West Branch (of the Penobscot River) Logging Road, but the cost per mile suggested it was being paved with gold. Nobody, including the Preservationists, gave a thought to fiddleheads until the road was completed, but all at once a great many people realized a splendid fernery had been bulldozed away. The fiddlehead is not endangered, so it was no great loss, but it was a nuisance to many to seek a new place - and a new place is never in tune with an old habit. Fiddleheads are not a matter unto themselves - they go with dogtooth violets, chirping birds just back, beaver cuttings and beaver slides, a bouncy trout exuberant because the ice is out, woodpeckers jackhammering, and the whistlers that fly upstream and downstream and upstream and downstream - wiff-wiff-wiff-wiff-wiff. Fiddleheads make an excuse to go and see such wonders.

But the time is coming when everybody can eat fiddleheads without wandering afield. Cloned, cleaned, canned, collegiate. Dick and Betty and I were talking about garden-patch fiddleheads just now, and we're going to be reluctant. The canoe is ready. Any day now.

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