How to Grow and Care for Ostrich Ferns

Ostrich ferns growing in sunlight

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) are deciduous ferns with bright bunches of green fronds that favor ostrich feathers. Growing from the plant's bottom come spring, these bountiful fronds grow similarly to curly fiddleheads. Fronds may reach 4 feet long. The entire upright, arching, rhizomatous plant spreads five to eight feet wide and grows two to three feet tall, and even up to six feet tall in moist, cool climates in the wild. 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 Zones 3 through 7. The plants are hardy to -4 degrees Fahrenheit. Mass plantings do well naturalized in moist, shady woodland sites, wild gardens, rain gardens, and wet borders by streams or ponds. Though not ideal, they can also grow in containers.

Common Name Ostrich fern
Botanical Name Matteuccia struthiopteris
Family Onocleaceae
Plant Type Perennial
Mature Size  3-6 ft. tall, 5-8 ft. wide
Sun Exposure  Partial, shade
Soil Type  Clay, moist
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, these can be considered invasive as they will overtake an area fairly quickly.

Harvested from the garden or bought at a specialty market, young fronds of this plant can be eaten before they fully unroll, while 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 resistant to rabbits and deer.

Ostrich fern frond unfurling closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Ostrich fern bushes growing in sunlight

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Ostrich fern frond closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Ostrich fern with wilting dark brown leaves

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Light

This fern grows in part to full shade. Generally, open shade is best. Leaves may turn yellow and burn if exposed to full sun. Only if planted in an especially cool, moist location will it tolerate full sun.

Soil

Give the ostrich fern heavy clay soil that is humus-rich and moist. Maintain a neutral pH between 5 and 6.5. Native to marshes and creekbeds, they will tolerate some erosion and a lot of moisture.

Water

Water throughout the summer to maintain medium to wet conditions. Without enough moisture, the foliage may go dormant too early.

Fertilizer

While it is not necessary to fertilize an ostrich fern, if you are fertilizing other plants nearby, lightly fertilize the ferns, making sure not to overfertilize them as these plants are sensitive to fertilizer.

Ostrich Ferns vs. Cinnamon or Interrupted Ferns

There are two other types of ferns that look similar to the ostrich fern and are commonly mistaken for this plant. They are the Cinnamon Fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomea) and the Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana). The easiest way to tell is from the shape and look of the fronds on the plant. Simply turn one of the fronds over 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 sports forked veins and leaflets that are about 3 inches long and don't extend down to the ground as the leaflets on the fronds of an ostrich fern do.

Pruning

Heavy pruning isn't needed, but light trimming keeps ostrich ferns looking fresh. Clean up any old or awkwardly-shaped fronds. Prune 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, so since they spread by way of underground rhizomes, regular division each spring will keep them in their place. Here's how:

  1. Select a fern to divide that has gotten two or more times the original plant size.
  2. Use a shovel and dig around the entire outer perimeter of the chosen plant and dig it up.
  3. Shake off the dirt so you can see the separate rhizomes and split them up with a spade, sharp knife, or sometimes they can simply be pulled apart with your hands.
  4. Plant in the desired location and water.

Potting and Repotting Ostrich Ferns

If you plant an ostrich fern in a container, make sure that it is large enough to provide room for the fern to spread and grow as it matures. Plant it in rich, acidic clay soil and water regularly to keep the dirt moist. If keeping it indoors, provide it with the proper lighting. You will need to repot when the plant fills out the container and starts to become rootbound. These ferns do make a showy statement on outdoor patios and entryways when planted in a container.

Overwintering

Ostrich ferns are pretty hardy and can handle cold as low as -4 degrees Fahrenheit. Besides pruning any 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 pop back up in the spring.

Common Problems with Ostrich Fern

Ostrich fern is a relatively problem-free 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.

FAQ
  • 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. One of these ferns can spread up to one foot in a year.

  • What plants can you pair with ostrich ferns?

    Pair ostrich ferns with astilbes or hostas, perhaps with early spring wildflowers like trilliums, bloodroot, trout lilies, or Dutchman's breeches, all of which go dormant before the fern reaches its mature size.

  • How often should you cut back ostrich ferns?

    To keep these fast-spreading ferns under control and contained, simply remove any baby plants by hand as soon as you see them sprouting up within the garden bed or any other areas in your yard.