Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) are deciduous ferns with bright bunches of green fronds that resemble ostrich feathers. The fern fronds appear at the base of the fern clump in spring as fiddleheads that will eventually unfurl. Fronds can reach four feet long. The upright, arching, rhizomatous plant spreads five to eight feet wide and grows two to three feet tall, and in the wild can grow up to six feet tall in moist, cool climates. The sterile fronds create a massive crown, shaped like a vase, around the less showy, spiky, erect, dark brown fronds. As summer continues, the fertile fronds usually wilt and become tattered by early fall as they lose their leaflets entirely (earlier than most ferns) and go dormant by winter.
Native to eastern North America, eastern Asia, and Europe, the ostrich fern is one of the most common native ferns, hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 through 7. The plants are hardy to minus four degrees Fahrenheit. Mass plantings do well naturalized in moist, shady woodland sites, wildflower gardens, rain gardens, and wet borders along streams and ponds. Though not ideal, they can also be grown in containers.
|Common Name||Ostrich fern|
|Botanical Name||Matteuccia struthiopteris|
|Mature Size||3-6 ft. tall, 5-8 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Partial to full shade|
|Soil Type||Organically rich, moist; tolerates clay|
|Soil pH||Acidic, neutral|
|Hardiness Zones||3-7 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Europe, Asia, North America|
Ostrich Fern Care
Each specimen has a short rhizome but produces long stolons. Once established, ostrich ferns spread rapidly, and while not on the invasive plants' list, they can be considered invasive as they will overtake an area fairly quickly.
Harvested from the garden or bought at a specialty market, young fronds can be eaten before they fully unfurl when they are very thick and succulent. The flavor is comparable to that of asparagus.
Offering attractive texture and form, they make good cut accents for bouquets. Ostrich ferns have no serious common pests and diseases and are rabbit and deer resistant.
This fern grows in partial to full shade. Generally, dappled shade is best. Leaves can turn yellow and burn if exposed to full sun. Only if planted in an especially cool, moist location will it tolerate full sun.
The ostrich fern grows best in soil that is moist, acidic, and rich in organic matter, but it will tolerate clay soil. Soil pH should be between 5.0 and 6.5. Native to marshes and creekbeds, they will tolerate some erosion and a lot of moisture.
Water throughout the summer to maintain medium to wet conditions. Do not let soil dry out. Without enough moisture, the plant might go dormant too early in the growing season.
Temperature and humidity
The ostrich fern grows best in cool summer climates rather than climates with hot and humid summers.
While it is not necessary to fertilize an ostrich fern, if you are fertilizing other plants nearby, lightly fertilize the ferns. Do not overfertilize because these ferns are sensitive to too much fertilizer.
The Difference Between Ostrich, Cinnamon, and Interrupted Ferns
Two other types of ferns look similar to the ostrich fern and are commonly mistaken for it: the cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomea) and the interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana).
The easiest way to tell them apart is from the shape and look of the fronds. Simply turn over a frond to examine it. The cinnamon fern has a furry or hairy spot near the sheath—where the stem and leaf meet—on the frond, and the interrupted fern has forked veins and leaflets that are about three inches long and don't extend down to the ground as the frond leaflets do on an ostrich fern.
Heavy pruning isn't needed, but light trimming keeps ostrich ferns looking fresh. Clean up any old or awkwardly-shaped fronds. Cut down dead foliage and fertile fronds in the late winter.
Propagating Ostrich Ferns
Ostrich ferns are aggressive spreaders. They're bountiful and can take over your garden, and because they spread by way of underground rhizomes, regular division each spring will keep them in their place. Here's how:
- Select a fern that has grown two or more times the original plant size.
- Use a shovel to dig around the entire outer perimeter of the fern and remove the fern from the ground.
- Shake off the excess soil so you can see the rhizomes and divide them with a spade, sharp knife, or sometimes pull apart with your hands.
- Plant the fern divisions in a shady, moist location and water them well.
Potting and Repotting Ostrich Ferns
These ferns make a showy statement on outdoor patios and entryways when planted in a container. Make sure that the container is large enough to provide room for the fern to spread and grow as it matures. Fill the container with rich, acidic soil and water the plant regularly to keep the soil moist.
You will need to repot when the fern fills out the container and starts to become rootbound.
Ostrich ferns are hardy and can handle cold temperatures as low as minus four degrees Fahrenheit. Besides cutting down the dead fronds in the fall when they go dormant, there's not much more you need to do to overwinter these plants. New growth will emerge in the spring.
Common Problems with Ostrich Fern
Ostrich fern is a relatively problem-free and rabbit- and deer-resistant plant. It can spread aggressively via rhizomes, so keep an eye on new plants popping up if you want to keep it within bounds.
How fast does an ostrich fern grow and spread?
Ostrich ferns are fast growing and their fronds can reach their full height of four feet, sometimes taller, within mere weeks and can spread up to one foot in a year.
What plants can you pair with ostrich ferns?
How often should you cut back ostrich ferns?
To keep these fast-spreading ferns under control and contained, remove any baby plants by hand as soon as you see them sprouting up in any other areas in your landscape.