Sunday, August 3, 2008

Urban Nature: Stalking the Wild Red Fiddle

(click image for larger view)
azolla rutilus fiddlis caput capitus: the crimson fiddlehead fern
(common name: "red fiddle")

Do an image search on the common fiddlehead fern, and you'll see that half the photos taken are not of these ferns in the prime of their life, sunlit against the backdrop of some pristine Mainer forest. No, for whatever dark and macabre reason, people tend to shoot the fiddleheads as they face their green and gristly deaths: ghastly shots of their furled "scrolls" (the "fiddle heads" themeselves), already unceremoniously de-ferned, de-frocked and de-fiddled, post picked, post butchered, and now piled by the hundreds in the produce aisle or in some crackling New England skillet.

As rural legend goes, the red fiddle (this one, above, photographed today in the northwest corner of our yard) once thrived in this area, before midwestern skillets made similar assaults and practically did away with the now-endangered "azolla rutilus".

The idea of a former golden age of the Great Red Fiddle is probably not all hocus-pocus. Surviving records of pre-colonial America include numerous accounts of what many believe -- and I among them -- could only be the red fiddle fern. When, for example, the first settlers made their way through central Missouri, they often spoke of "curled, crymson flaires" that peppered the fields and prairies from early spring to late August.

It could only be a matter of time before someone tried to eat them. "Come, let's cook the red thynges, with garlicke and the taile of badger!" A delicatessen was born, and the fate of the red fiddle was all but sealed.

But, at last, what is truly remarkable about the red fiddle fern is not its near extinction, but the fact that it has survived at all. The ingeuity of a brainless thing can only bespeak a Creator: the surviving red fiddle fern lives on today because the "crymson flaire" no longer means "lunch" to the grazing Midwesterner. Today, it means stand clear: the modern red fiddle has a chemical component remarkably similar to "Frontline" flea and tick repellant. Extremely poisonous.

Do not eat.

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