How to Grow Ostrich Ferns

Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)

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Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) are especially showy. These deciduous ferns produce large, upright clumps of finely dissected medium green fronds, which resemble long feathery ostrich plumes. Emerging from the base in spring, these vegetative fronds grow in a way that is similar to the familiar curly fiddlehead ferns as they unfurl. Each frond can grow to be up to four 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.

Harvested from the garden or bought at a speciality market, young fronds can be eaten before they fully unroll, while they are very thick and succulent. The flavor is comparable to that of asparagus. The sterile fronds have even been used medicinally, including for treating back pain.

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.

Pair 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.

Botanical Name Matteuccia struthiopteris
Common Name Ostrich fern
Plant Type Deciduous perennial
Mature Size  3 to 6 ft. tall, 5 to 8 ft. wide
Sun Exposure  Part shade to full shade
Soil Type  Rich, medium to wet clay
Soil pH  Acidic to neutral 
Bloom Time  N/A
Flower Color  N/A
Hardiness Zones  3 - 7, USDA
Native Area  Europe, eastern Asia, eastern North America
Toxicity  Non-toxic 

Ostrich Fern Care

Each specimen has a short rhizome but produces long stolons. Once established, ostrich ferns spread rapidly and can be considered invasive.

Offering attractive texture and form, they make good cut accents for bouquets and are resistant to rabbits and deer.

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.

Is Ostrich Fern Toxic?

There are no obvious reports of ostrich ferns being toxic for humans or pets. Still, it is worth noting that many ferns have carcinogens and caution is always advised when foraging. For example, the CDC studied outbreaks of food poisoning associated with consuming fiddleheads (young, furled fronds) of the ostrich fern that were raw or too lightly cooked.

Quite a few ferns also contain an enzyme called thiaminase that, if consumed in large quantities, sucks a significant amount of vitamin B complex from the body and can cause severe health problems. Fortunately, heat or thorough drying destroys thiaminase so cooking the plant avoids this issue altogether.

Symptoms of Poisoning

If the ostrich fern is consumed raw or too lightly cooked, vomiting or diarrhea may occur within 12 hours. Other symptoms may include nausea and abdominal cramps.

Pruning

Heavy pruning isn't needed, but light trimming keeps 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 spread aggressively in ideal growing conditions. They fill a space and can even outcompete their plant neighbors. As they spread by underground rhizomes, keep them in check by regular division in early spring as new growth emerges.