Ostrich fern (Struthiopteris spp.) is a large, easily grown fern that is native to the northern states and Canadian provinces. It is a primary source of edible fiddleheads, a gourmet wild food sometimes seen in grocery stores in early spring.

Gardening With Ostrich Fern

Ostrich fern is so named because of it enormous feathery fronds that are the size of ostrich feathers. The emerging fronds unfurl as they grow skyward in spring; the tight ball of the unfurling frond atop a thin stalk is referred to as a fiddlehead (a term used with many ferns) though it also resembles the gracefully curved neck and head of an ostrich.

Fiddleheads Center view of ostrich fern

The ferns form erect clumps three to four feet tall and two to three feet wide by early summer. Later in summer, smaller cinnamon-colored fronds emerge from the center of each clump – these are the fertile fronds which are covered by the tiny spores that are the seeds of the fern.

Preferred Habitat

Ostrich fern thrives in woodlands settings with ample shade, moisture and rich soil. They are often seen on creek banks in the wild and are happy in soil that is constantly wet. They can tolerate partial sun in northerly climates, but in hot places they should be planted in full shade and watered regularly.

Planting and Caring For Ostrich Fern

Ostrich fern will thrive if planted into an existing woodland environment, but otherwise it’s important to enrich the soil heavily with compost prior to planting. Fall is the optimal planting time as the ferns will have plenty of time to get established while the weather is cool and moist.

Leave Room for Spreading

It’s a good idea to plant ostrich fern where it has room to spread. While it grows in distinct individual clumps, the plants send out underground rhizomes that pop up into new clumps, allowing the fern to slowly colonize large areas. It is ideal as a large scale groundcover in shaded locations.

Seasonal Care

Unless ostrich fern is planted in an area that is naturally moist, it will need a deep watering at least once per week in summer; otherwise it may go dormant prematurely. Clip off the fronds at the base when they go dormant in fall. The fertile fronds in the center keep an attractive appearance much longer than the outer green fronds, so these can be left until they also turn brown at some point in the winter. Ostrich fern is not troubled by any pests or disease.

Harvesting Fiddleheads

Ostrich fern fiddleheads should be harvested as soon as they emerge from the ground. Once they are more than a few inches tall, they lose their tender, delicious qualities. Remove the brown papery scales on the outside of the fiddlehead under running water and prepare as desired. Ostrich fern fiddleheads should only be consumed cooked, not raw. Of course, if you want your ostrich ferns to keep growing, make sure to only harvest a small portion of the fiddleheads each year.

Where to Purchase

Ostrich fern is a special plant that is not always available in nurseries, especially outside of its native range. Luckily, you can purchase it on the Internet and have it delivered to your door.

  • Greenwood Nursery sells small potted ostrich ferns for planting in USDA zones 2-8 for about $10.
  • Jackson & Perkins sells slightly larger ostrich ferns hardy in USDA zones 2-7 for just under $15.

A Delightful Native for Shade

If you’re on the hunt for lush, reliable shade specimen, ostrich fern might be just the plant for you. It is one of the easiest, most ornamental native ferns to grow – and if you’re an adventurous eater, you could try sautéing a few of the unfurled fronds as soon as they emerge in spring.

How to Prune: Evergreen Ferns & Evergreen Groundcovers

Although ferns don’t bloom, their unique forms and textures provide exceptional visual interest in the garden. Combined with evergreen groundcovers, which do bloom, they fashion a beautiful, mixed interest garden bed that should require very little work during the gardening year.

Ferns are among some of the oldest plants on the planet, and they come in sizes that range from tight, groundcover forms such as Blechnum penna-marina (Alpine Water Fern) to towering tropical tree forms. While these are gorgeous and offered in many nurseries, seeking out ferns native to your locale will increase your gardening success rate. North American native ferns like Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum) and Deer Fern (Blechnum spicant) are fantastic evergreen options for mixed height, texture and beautiful year-round interest. The trick: prune them at just the right time, and it takes no time at all!

Many gardeners claim to dislike ferns because they “look messy” or are “hard to prune”. The reality is many evergreen ferns have fronds (they’re not called leaves on ferns) that last only a year or so. Then those older fronds die back and turn brown, but they remain woven among the newer growth. And, that’s what causes the messiness, which is difficult to clean out from among so many other living fronds.

How to Use Ferns in Your Garden or Landscape

Walk through almost any natural area that is shady and moist, and you are bound to see ferns. They carpet the ground in woodlands and swampy areas, gather around springs and stream banks, cascade over rocky outcroppings and decorate old stone walls.

Ferns are plentiful in the wild, yet it’s unusual to see them growing in a home landscape. That’s unfortunate, because these graceful perennials have so much to offer! They are easy to grow, long-lived and require zero care. They come in a wide range of colors, shapes, and sizes. Plus, they are rarely troubled by diseases or pests, including deer and rabbits.

Ferns are among the earth’s most ancient plants, and this may be one of the reasons we find them so appealing. They have an air of untamed wildness about them, and look like they have been planted by nature, not by a gardener.

Leatherwood Fern

Using Ferns in Your Yard and Garden

Ferns are an excellent addition to any shady garden. You can use them as specimen plants or for background plantings. They also make good companions for other shade plants such as hostas, astilbes, dicentras and caladiums.

If your yard is shady, it can be challenging to maintain a good-looking lawn. Why not consider replacing the most difficult areas with ferns? Once established, they are an excellent ground cover and require much less attention than turf grass.

As a general rule, ferns prefer moist soil, so they are a natural choice for edging a stream or pond. Have a soggy area or rain garden? Consider including ferns along with other moisture-loving perennials such as monarda, Joe Pye weed and ornamental grasses.

Ostrich Fern

Where to Plant Ferns

Most ferns grow best in loose, loamy soil that is rich in organic matter. Before planting, take a minute to work in some compost and peat moss. Though most ferns are not fussy about soil pH, some types prefer acidic soil, so check the soil pH and match the plant to the growing conditions.

There are some ferns that will tolerate sun, provided the soil is good and they don’t dry out. Interrupted ferns and cinnamon ferns are good for a relatively sunny location. For sites with dry soil, choose Christmas ferns or lady ferns. If a period of unusually hot weather causes your ferns to wither, cut them back to the ground and they will regrow once temperatures cool down.

Five Easy Ferns for Home Gardeners

There are many ferns to choose from and each has its own special character. Here are five types to consider:

Christmas Fern. This fern (shown above) is native to the eastern U.S. and is particularly popular in the southeast, where the foliage stays green throughout the winter. The fronds are dark green and have the same long, narrow shape as a Boston fern. Though the plants are relatively slow-growing, they are very long-lived. Plant them in moist, well-drained soil that is relatively acidic. You can expect Christmas ferns to grow 1 to 2 feet tall with a similar spread. Hardy in zones 3-8.

Ghost Fern. This fern is a hybrid between the lady fern and Japanese painted fern. The plants have an upright habit and silvery grey fronds with burgundy accents. Plant in part to full shade and provide shelter from wind. Ghost ferns will not tolerate drought, so it’s important to choose a planting location where the soil stays moist all season long. The plants grow relatively slow, but can eventually spread to cover a 2 to 3-foot area. Height is 12 to 18”. Hardy in zones 4-7.

Ostrich Fern. These native, clump-forming plants have an upright habit and grow 4 to 6-feet tall with a 3 to 6-foot spread. They produce two types of fronds. The showy, infertile fronds are long and lacy, and resemble an ostrich plume. They emerge at the base of the plant, curled up like a fiddlehead, and slowly unfurl to their full, 4-foot length. The plant’s dark brown, fertile fronds appear in midsummer at the center of the clump and grow about a foot tall.

Ostrich ferns prefer medium to wet, slightly acidic soils and full to part shade. The plants spread by underground rhizomes, and under ideal growing conditions they will form large, dense colonies. Therefore, it’s important to give them plenty of room to spread out. The plants grow best in sheltered locations with cool summers. Suitable in zones 2-7.

Leatherwood Fern. This fern is native to the eastern U.S. and is sometimes called the marginal shield fern. It is low-growing, reaching a height of 18-24” with an equal spread. The dark green to bluish-green fronds are 5 to 8” wide and have a leathery texture. Grow in moist soil and full to part shade. Protect from sun and drying winds. A great choice for any shady garden. Hardy in zones 3-8.

Lady in Red. Lady ferns are native to the eastern and central U.S. This variety has been selected for its showy red stem color. The deeply cut, light green fronds are 6 to 9” wide and 2-3 feet long. The color of the stems intensifies as the plants mature.

Plant lady ferns in full to part shade, and give young plants plenty of room to reach full size, which is 24-30” tall and 18-24” wide. In northern areas, the plants will tolerate sun if the soil stays moist. Lady ferns are an excellent ground cover and good companions for other shade loving perennials. If you enjoy making flower arrangements, you’ll find the foliage makes a great filler. Hardy in zones 3-8.

To see our complete selection of ferns, click HERE. To learn more about gardening in the shade, read: Design Tips for Shady Gardens.

Matteuccia struthiopteris

ostrich fern Interesting Notes

Fiddleheads (young coiled sterile fronds) are considered a delicacy. Collected in early spring, they support a local canning industry in New England and adjacent Canada. rook.org

Eating the Fiddleheads

In selecting fiddleheads look for a tight coil and only an inch or two of stem beyond the coil. There is a brown papery chaff that surrounds the fiddlehead on the plant. Much of this will have been removed prior to purchase, but some may remain. (See below for ways to remove Fiddlehead chaff.)

The outside of the coil should have an intricate pattern of tiny leaves arranged along the sides of the spiral. Size of the coil should be 1 to 1.5 inches in diameter. Larger size is acceptable as long as they are tightly coiled. Common bracken and other ferns also produce tightly coiled new growth in the Spring but none of these are suitable for eating.

Good fiddleheads should have a distinctly crisp texture, both raw and after brief cooking.

Handling Fresh Fiddleheads

If more than 2 inches of stem remains attached beyond the coiled part of the fiddlehead snap or cut it off. If any of the paper chaff remains on the fiddleheads you may rub it off by hand. Since the chaff is very light, you may want to clean off the chaff outdoors by fanning them or lightly shaking them in an open wire salad basket.

After the chaff is removed wash the fiddleheads in several changes of cold water to remove any dirt or grit. Drain the fiddleheads completely. Use them fresh, and soon after harvest.

If you must store fresh Fiddleheads keep well cooled (35 F) and tightly wrapped to prevent drying out. If you have stored them, you may wish to trim the stem again just before use since the cut end will darken in storage. They may be kept in refrigeration for about 10 days, although flavor will be best if used as soon as possible after harvest.


The flavor of fiddleheads goes well with cheeses, tomato sauce and oriental cuisine. Excellent with Hollandaise sauce.

Fiddleheads are versatile and easy to use. They have a mild taste reminiscent of Asparagus with an added nutty bite all their own. They are excellent marinated in vinegar and oil or as a crunchy pickle. As a featured vegetable they will please the most demanding palate. Fiddleheads can be used in similar ways to any firm green vegetable such as Asparagus or Broccoli florets. Fiddleheads will lend their delicious flavor and elegant visual appeal to many familiar dishes. Use them as a perfect featured vegetable in a simple stir-fry.

They are wonderful in pasta dishes with a sauce made from Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar. Sauté, stir-fry or steam briefly to retain their crunchy texture and bright green color. Do not overcook.

Fiddlehead ferns are a good source of vitamins A and C. Fiddleheads should not be served raw as they have a slight bitterness until cooked and may cause stomach upset if eaten raw in quantity. Health Canada advises that fresh fiddleheads must be properly cooked before being consumed. www.wild-harvest.com

The jumbo Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) – “The King” – is a huge spreader ready to fill your vacant meadow! It is native to much of northern North America, and with its cold tolerance it leads off the spring with magnificent fist-sized green fiddleheads.

When well-watered, the height of this fern can approach seven feet. (No head in the ground for this bird!) Autumn turns the deciduous sterile fronds a glowing golden yellow while the separate fertile fronds fade from green to brown and remain erect throughout the winter.

Underground runners “run” out forming surrounding colonies making this very useful for a quick cover. And if you don’t like it you can always eat it as these are the fiddleheads of gourmet restaurants: in fact, it’s the state vegetable of Vermont! But we are pretty sure your customers will like this plant – Ostrich Fern has won the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

The fern normally prefers northern climates, but this selection will do well in the southeast as well. Zones 2 and higher. – Casa Flora

Ostrich Fern
Matteuccia struthiopteris

Other scientific names: Matteuccia pensylvanica, Pteretis nodulosa, Pteretis pensylvanica, Struthiopteris pensylvanica

French names: Matteuccie fougère-à-L’Autriche

Family: Wood Fern Family (Dryopteridaceae)

Distinctive features: All fronds grow from a single black knob.

Similar species:
• Cinnamon Fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) – grows in wetter areas, has white-velvety lower stems; does not grow from a single black knob.
• Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana) – does not have a separate fertile frond; does not grow from a single black knob.
• Marsh Fern (Thelypteris palustris) – smaller; crooked stem; fronds grow singly; grows in wetter areas.
• Virginia Chain Fern (Woodwardia virginica) – uncommon; fronds grow singly.

Fronds: Twice divided

Height: 90-120 cm (35-47 in)

Habitat: Forests, Wet Areas; Forests in rich damp soil.
Uses: Edible – this is the preferred species to eat. However, it should only be eaten in moderation as all ferns contain varying amounts of carcinogenic compounds.
Native/Non-native: Native
Status: Very common.
Notes: Not evergreen, but the fertile fronds persist through the winter.
Frequently confused with Cinnamon Fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum).
Photographs: 178 photographs available, of which 19 are featured on this page. SCROLL DOWN FOR PHOTOGRAPHS.

Range Map is at the bottom of the page

Leaf development of the ostrich fern Matteuccia struthiopteris (L.) Todaro

The timing of emergence of the three different leaf types of Matteuccia struthiopteris is described from plants sampled over the course of a growing season. Vegetative leaves were first to appear, followed five weeks later by sporophylls and cataphylls. Leaf number and type, and total leaf dry weight per plant were assessed in weekly transects. Vegetative fronds contributed the most to total leaf dry weight, which increased during the first four weeks, and then remained constant for the remainder of the season. Cataphylls, although numerous by the end of the season, contributed little weight. Sporophylls occurred on the widest plants with the most vegetative leaves and greatest leaf weight, whereas cataphylls occurred on most plants except the smallest. Experimentally defoliated plants were re‐examined in late summer. Following initial harvest, plants often produced a second smaller set of leaves. These were restricted to vegetative leaves and cataphylls. Ability to reissue leaves, especially vegetative fronds, declined very quickly after the first few weeks in the growing season. Defoliated plants draw on the extensive reservoir of developing leaves which are found on the rhizome, thus possibly diminishing the ability of the plant to withstand regular harvesting of the young fronds for food. Individual leaves were tagged and measured over the growing season. Non‐linear regression curves fitted to the growth data for the three types of leaves indicate that growth was described best by a monomolecular growth curve for the vegetative and fertile fronds. Cataphyllar growth could be described equally well by either a monomolecular or a logistic function.

Growing Ferns Indoors

Ferns are relatively easy to grow; however, drafts, dry air and temperature extremes won’t help. Ferns that are pampered and protected from things like dry air and temperature extremes will reward you with lush green fronds all year round, beautifying your indoor garden more than you could imagine. Let’s learn more about growing ferns indoors.

Tips for Growing Ferns Indoors

There are a lot of species of tropical and subtropical ferns, but there are also a lot of ferns that are native to more temperate climates. These ferns would be well suited to cooler parts of the house but won’t survive in rooms that are too well heated. Tropical ferns survive best in homes with central heating. Below are recommend indoor conditions for optimal fern growth:


All ferns love moisture and should be given humid conditions. In living rooms and family rooms, stand their pots on trays of damp pebbles or clay granules. Ferns also love being misted at regular intervals with tepid, soft water unless the humidity of the whole room is kept high through the use of a humidifier.


You also need to provide the right compost. Most ferns are forest or woodland plants and have tender, delicate roots adapted to the light forest soil, which is rich in leaf mould and decayed vegetable matter. The right compost must be free draining so that the roots never get waterlogged. A compost that contains peat or a fibrous peat substitute with plenty of sand is best. The compost should never be allowed to dry out, which may mean watering the plant a little every single day in a warm, dry atmosphere.


Although most ferns grow in moist shady places like forest floors, this does not mean that they need no light. Their normal situation in the wild is dappled light, and if the light level in the home is too low, you will see poor growth and yellowing fronds. Give your ferns a position near a window that gets morning or late afternoon sun, and keep the ferns away from strong sunlight, especially during the summer. Direct sunlight will make them lose their leaves or turn their fronds yellow.

You can keep your ferns in dim light as long as you give them regular breaks in bright light. They can be given artificial light, but this should be from a special gardening bulb or a fluorescent strip. Ordinary light bulbs generate too much heat.


An individual fern’s place of origin and adaptability will determine how high or low temperature the fern needs. Most ferns don’t like cold. Those ferns from tropical regions truly appreciate 60-70 F (15-21 C.). Those from more temperate regions enjoy temperatures between 50-60 F. (10-16 C).


Feed your ferns in the summertime every two to four weeks with a liquid fertilizer, but don’t mix it full strength because you can damage the root system. Just a few drops of fertilizer can be added to the water occasionally for misting. Don’t feed your ferns in the winter because they rest. In order to keep the air around your ferns moist, mist them often.


You can repot your ferns in the springtime, but only if their roots are filling the pot. Otherwise, just scrape off the top layer of compost and replace it with fresh compost. Cut off any damaged fronds to encourage new growth.

When you repot your ferns, split them up and make two out of one. You can also grow new ferns from the powdery spores produced in little capsules. These capsules are visible as rows of rusty brown patches on the underside of the fronds. These will grow into a green film into which the fern will grow.

Indoor Fern Companions

Bromeliads are plants similar to the pineapple with a rosette of firm fleshy leaves. Some have a larger piece in the center or have plants with less form that wander without roots in the pot. The roots of a bromeliad are used simply for anchoring it to a support. They are not used for gathering nourishment. They make striking potted plants and also adapt well to hanging baskets.

There are also tillandsias. These grow well in pots and are great for hanging baskets because they have arching foliage and take their nourishment directly from their environment or air. They require very little water.

Keep in mind that bromeliads are tropical; they require warmer temperatures of 60-70 F. (15-21 C.) and some moisture. However, the tillandsias don’t require near as much moisture and you can actually grow them in shells, rocks and such.

Ferns, tillandsias and bromeliads are just as easy to grow as the palms, but be sure to pay attention to each of their needs.

Mother Spleenwort: This fern is also known as hen and chickens for its curious habit of growing baby plants along its fronds. The foliage of Asplenium bulbiferum looks a bit like carrot tops, so it’s not the most refined of the ferns; it’s a curious plant that’s fun and will survive short periods of drier soil, particularly in winter when it prefers to be just kept a couple of notches away from dry. (Fascinating fact: The young growth tips are a traditional food of the Maoris in New Zealand, where it’s a native.) Look out for the glossy-leaved hybrid ‘Maori Princess’, a cross between A. oblongifolium and A. bulbiferum that grows slowly: Dick Hayward recommends ‘Austral Gem’ aka ‘Parvati’, a cross between A. dimorphum and A. difforme that is sterile, so you don’t have baby plants self-seeding into neighboring pots. Angela Tandy says A. daucifolium, the Mauritius spleenwort, is also worth looking out for.

Japanese Holly Fern: Also known as fishtail fern, Cyrtomium falcatum is widely grown as an outdoor plant, but it does perfectly well indoors, and its glossy, leathery leaves can cope with the average levels of humidity found in most homes. This really is the fern to go for if you struggle with humidity and don’t want to risk losing your plant to crispiness within weeks. Tandy says this plant seeds everywhere in the glasshouses at her nursery, Fibrex, but this shouldn’t be a problem when it’s contained in a pot. This plant’s other huge bonus over many other ferns is it doesn’t shed leaves readily, so you won’t need to keep your Dustbuster on constant standby.

Above: The great pretender. Asparagus ferns such as Asparagus densiflorus ‘Sprengeri’ aren’t true ferns.

Asparagus Ferns: If you’re a stickler for plant taxonomy, it’s important to say straightaway that this isn’t a bona fide fern. The so-called asparagus ferns are in fact all relatives of the asparagus in the vegetable patch (but don’t try eating them), although they do possess the feathery foliage that makes us associate them with the true ferns.

Above: Asparagus ferns’ roots emerge from a clump of bulbs.

There are four widely available types: Asparagus setaceus, the common asparagus fern, the Asparagus densiflorus ‘Sprengeri’ group or emerald feather, A. falcatus the sickle thor, and Asparagus densiflorus ‘Myersii’, the plume asparagus or foxtail fern. These all make great houseplants, easy to grow for anyone who wants lacy foliage without the extra stress of constant misting.

They will cope with the average humidity of most homes, and the odd lapse in the watering regime. But do watch out when handling asparagus ferns as they often have tiny spines along the stem which are very painful if pricked. Like ferns, they dislike direct sunlight, so keep them away from south-facing windowsills, and in winter they will only need occasional watering.

Lacy Tree Fern: If you want something really big to make a statement, the lacy tree fern (Cyathea cooperi) is the one for you, Tandy says. Tree ferns can go outdoors in the summer but need to be in frost-free conditions at a minimum over the winter. They require plenty of bright light, but avoid direct sunlight; keep them moist but don’t water directly onto the crown as this can result in rot setting in. Check out Pistils Nursery’s guide to growing tree ferns indoors for more.

Above: Fern family, dappled sunlight, all is well.

As for my mahogany maidenhair fern? So far, my Didymochlaena truncatula is hardier and happier than my late, lamented delta maidenhair fern. With misting, dappled light, and a few humid days spent outdoors, I have high hopes—for the next few months, at least.

Need more houseplant help? See our curated growing guides for our favorites at Houseplants 101, including Asparagus Ferns 101, Orchids 101, and Prayer Plants. Don’t miss:

  • Houseplants: How to Decode the Info on Plant ID Tags
  • Succulents Explained: How to Identify and Grow 12 Favorites
  • Everything You Need to Know About Houseplants

Ostrich Fern Info: Learn More About How To Grow Ostrich Ferns

Have a corner in your yard that’s deeply shady and damp? A spot where nothing much seems to grow? Try planting ostrich fern. Growing an ostrich fern in such a miserable spot can benefit the gardener in several ways.

First, it relieves the gardener of the yearly headache of what to try this year to cover the awful spot. Visually, planting ostrich ferns can turn an eyesore into a triumph of woodland delight, eventually forming a backdrop for other shade lovers like hostas or bleeding hearts.

Looking for a bit of the tropics in your garden? With their pots surrounded by ostrich fern, houseplants of various tropical varieties, many of which need a bit of shade, will look simply stunning. Once you know how to grow ostrich ferns and your plants are thriving, you’ll have the additional benefit of a tasty treat in the fiddleheads you can harvest.

Ostrich Fern Info

Matteuccia struthiopteris is native to North America and grows quite well in USDA plant hardiness zones 3-7. Once established, it will grow to a height of three to six feet with a spread about the same. Ostrich fern grows in vase-shaped clumps called crowns. The showy, arching, sterile fronds are plume-like and reminiscent of the tail feathers of the bird from which the common name is derived.

When growing an ostrich fern, you’ll notice other, shorter fronds that emerge a few weeks after the initial fiddleheads. These are the fertile fronds that produce spores for reproduction. These fertile fronds are much shorter, only 12-20 inches long, and will remain standing long after the larger fronds have died back in dormancy.

How to Grow Ostrich Ferns

There are no special tricks to learning how to grow ostrich ferns. While they can be grown from spores, it’s best to order plants from a reputable grower. Your plants will usually arrive as dormant, bare roots packed in moss or wood shavings and are ready for planting.

Ostrich ferns should be planted in a shallow hole that has plenty of room for spreading roots. Make sure the crown sits just above soil level. Fill in around the roots with any average soil and water well. Take care of ostrich ferns for the first year or so by watering regularly.

Don’t expect too much at first, and don’t panic if the plant appears to stop growing. An ostrich fern’s first priority is to establish a hardy root system. Sometimes the fronds begin to grow and then die back several times during the first season.

Once established, the plant spreads easily through underground rhizomes and will soon fill in the space provided. The care of ostrich ferns is mostly cosmetic and consists of cleaning up debris during the dormant season. They’ll appreciate a little fertilizer once in a while and, of course, water frequently and well during the occasional drought.

Ostrich Fern Houseplants

Thinking of bringing this exotic looking bit of nature indoors? Ostrich fern houseplants do well as long as their outdoor growing conditions are met. Keep them out of direct light and keep them moist. Be prepared though for an occasional dormant season where your plant needs time to rejuvenate.

Ostrich fern houseplants need plenty of water and humidity levels that are higher than what is normally found indoors. Misting will help.

Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads

Once you know how to grow ostrich ferns and have a good bed established, you might want to try harvesting fiddleheads for a springtime dinner treat. Fiddleheads are the first ostrich fern shoots to show in the spring and are so called because of their resemblance to the neck of a fiddle. These are the sterile shoots that will grow into the largest fronds.

Pick no more than half from each crown while they are small and tightly curled. Before cooking, wash them carefully and remove the brown papery covering. Fiddleheads can be boiled or steamed and are a particular treat when sautéed in bacon drippings with a bit of garlic. Make sure to cook them thoroughly and use only ostrich fern fiddleheads.

Fixing a problem area with lush and beautiful growth and providing an otherwise expensive delicacy for your springtime table, all while needing very little care, ostrich ferns can be the ideal solution for filling that damp, shady spot.


Plants emerge in early spring; the stem may be covered with very short white hairs that typically do not persist.

Leaves and stems:

Leaf is once compound, leaflets deeply lobed, divided almost to mid-nerve. In outline, the leaf blade (frond) is widest above the middle, rapidly narrowing at the tip, gradually tapering to the base, nearly to the ground (shaped like an ostrich feather). The lowest leaflets are only about 1 inch long.

Veins are straight, not forked, in a chevron pattern most easily seen on the underside. The leaflet midrib may be covered to varying degrees in short hairs. The leaves, nearly erect to arching, grow in a circular clump with the fruiting fertile spike (if present) growing in the middle. The leaves die with the first frost.


Ostrich Fern has at least 1 spike 20 to 50 inches tall growing in the center of the leaf clump. 25 or more pairs of hard tubular-shaped “pods” contain the spores in somewhat bead-like structures. These fertile fronds are initially green but turn dark brown with maturity and persist through the winter, releasing spores the following spring before dying back.


Since the leaves, size and overall structure of Ostrich Fern, Cinnamon Fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomea) and Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana) closely resemble each other, they can most easily be distinguished by the fruiting fertile fronds. If spores are not present, the easiest way to distinguish the 3 species is to turn over the leaf and see if there is a tuft of hair at the junction of the main stem and leaflet – only Cinnamon Fern has this feature. Ostrich Fern can further be distinguished by the ostrich-feather shape of the leaf, with very short leaflets going almost down to the ground, and the lack of forked veins on the underside of the leaflets. Interrupted Fern has forked veins and its lowest leaflets are about 3 inches long. The fertile fronds of Ostrich Fern are also similar to those of Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), which is generally shorter and has only 5 to 11 pairs of spore-bearing structures. Ostrich Fern has been used in landscaping but can be a bit aggressive and form large colonies. The fiddleheads are edible, quite tasty sautéed in a little butter (what isn’t!). There are 2 varieties of M. struthiopteris, with var. struthiopteris native to Eurasia and var. pensylvanica in North America.

Ostrich Fern-Dramatic Ground Cover for Shade

June 7, 2019

Do you have a spot that is shady, damp, and has problems with erosion? Ostrich Ferns might be your solution.

Fern Resurgence

Ferns are enjoying a resurgence of interest and popularity recently, primarily because of fitting into older shady landscapes and their superb deer resistance. The wetter climate that we have experienced in the last couple of years is also a factor that makes people look at this class of plants with renewed scrutiny. Ferns like shrubs and other flowering perennials have their specific uses and applications for the landscape, and many are garden worthy. Interrupted Fern, Christmas Fern, Tassel Fern, and Maidenhair Fern are all great ferns, but the one I find going back to time and again for its versatility and adaptability is Ostrich Fern, Matteuccia pensylvanica, a native of northern North America.

Landscape Value

Tolerating both wet and drier situations as well as some sun to shade, this fern colonizes an area by spreading rhizomes, and you can easily propagate it and spread to other areas, by lifting the rhizomes and separating them into pieces. Great for damp areas and erosion control, like a drainage swale, I use it frequently in my designed landscapes as a water-loving plant for soggy areas or beside streams. Best planted in masses, forming a towering backdrop for other shade-loving perennials, it is wonderful on sloping sites that are hard to mow.

A perfect candidate for a rain garden, the feathery fern plumes can reach six feet in height when happy, thus the common name ‘Ostrich Fern’. Dying back in winter, the fronds appear vigorously in the early spring, popping out of the ground almost overnight. The clumps also increase in size every year for a lush dramatic ground cover. Dark brown fertile fern fronds bearing spores appear later in the season and people often mistake them for dead fronds. But these are the spore-producing fronds necessary for reproduction. To learn how to collect spores to propagate your collection of ferns, go to ‘How to Grow Ferns From Spores’. Wonderful in dried flower arrangements, I collect these brown fronds and dry them. Wonderful additions to fresh flower arrangements also, I cut the lush fronds in the morning and plunge them into a pail of room temperature water to hydrate for several hours. Then I use them for vase arrangements mixed with flowers, for a dramatic effect.

Fiddleheads-Collecting and Cooking

The fiddleheads which are simply the curled or coiled young fronds emerging in the spring are considered a delicacy. Collected in early spring, look for a tight coil (1-1.5 inch in diameter) held close to the ground with only an inch or two of stem showing. Sometimes there is a brown papery case that surrounds the coil and you remove this by rubbing it off before cooking. Wash the fiddleheads several times in cold water to remove any dirt or grit and you can store them a few days tightly wrapped in the refrigerator before preparing. But the sooner you cook them after harvest, the better.

Tasting like a nutty asparagus, the fronds mesh well with stir-frying, hollandaise sauce, tomatoes, and other cheeses. A great source of vitamins A and C, fiddleheads should not be served raw as they can cause stomach upset. For a simple recipe to fix fiddleheads, go to Sauteed Fiddleheads.

Claire is a horticulturalist and landscape design consultant. Owner of Claire Jones Landscapes, LLC, Claire’s designed gardens have been featured in print publications like WSJ and Style Magazine. A garden writer at The Garden Diaries, Claire maintains 3 honeybee hives and gardens at her home in Maryland.

Categories: Edible Plants, Native Plants, Rain Garden, and Shade Plants This entry was posted on Friday, June 7th, 2019 at 1:27 pm. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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