How to Grow and Care for Ostrich Ferns

Ostrich ferns growing in sunlight

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

In This Article

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.

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 
Hardiness Zones  3 - 7, USDA
Native Area  Europe, eastern Asia, eastern North America

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.

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.

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 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