Fiddlehead ferns are popular on restaurant menus and at farmer's markets in the spring. These popular fronds come from many ferns; however, ostrich fern is the edible type used most often in cooking. This fern grows steadily with a stately, vase-shaped habit. The freshly emerged, tightly coiled delicate crosiers or "fiddleheads" are named for looking like the scroll-like head of a fiddle or violin.
Reproduced by spores, this fern's growing season starts in the spring, usually after the threat of frost has passed. They grow very quickly. The edible fiddlehead fern season is also short, only lasting a few weeks each year.
|Common Name||Fiddlehead fern, ostrich fern, garden fern|
|Botanical Name||Matteuccia struthiopteris|
|Mature Size||3–4 ft. tall, 1 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Partial, full|
|Soil Type||Moist, well-drained, slightly acidic|
|Soil pH||Acidic (5.5 to 6.5)|
|Hardiness Zones||2 to 7 (USDA)|
|Native Area||North America|
Fiddlehead Fern Care
Ostrich ferns, like many ferns, can overtake a space when growing conditions are right. They grow from a crown or rhizome, a thick horizontal rooting structure. The root grows larger and spreads under the soil, and from it come new sprigs of fiddleheads or new fern growth. New ferns also spread or reproduce from spores. These plants prefer moist, fertile soil and partial shade. It's common to see these plants growing in stands near shady brooks and streams.
Mature ostrich ferns produce an average of seven fronds. Pick new fronds in spring just as they are beginning to uncurl, often in May. When picking fiddleheads, make sure to choose no more than three (no more than half) per plant to allow enough foliage surface area for the plant to photosynthesize and thrive throughout the growing season.
Fiddlehead ferns prefer light to partial shade but tolerate full shade or full sun if the soil is moist and rich.
Ferns require at least 1 to 2 inches of water per week. Never allow the soil to dry out. If the area is prone to drying out, consider using a thick mulch around the base of the plants and possibly a soaker hose buried under the mulch on a timer to keep the roots and soil consistently moist. Leaves may scorch if the soil is not wet enough.
Temperature and Humidity
Ostrich ferns can survive temperatures down to – 4 degrees Fahrenheit; however, this plant grows the best in ideal temperatures of 55 to 80 F. They prefer moist air. The inside air is usually too dry to sustain a fern if grown indoors. Mist the plant daily or set a humidifier to regularly hydrate the air around the fern. Keep the air at least 50% relative humidity—the more, the better.
Fiddlehead ferns do not require fertilizer if given a compost-enriched, humusy soil. Otherwise, you can give a light feeding of balanced, 20-20-20 slow-release plant food once a month during the spring season.
Types of Fiddlehead Ferns
There are more than 10,000 species of ferns in the world, and all fern fronds get their delicate start as fiddleheads. Only a few species are safe and edible to consume; most scientists and cookbooks stress cooking the fiddleheads. By far, ostrich fern is the most common type grown for eating in the U.S. The following types are edible when cooked properly:
- Western sword fern (Polystichum munitum): Native to the northwestern U.S., another common edible type; also called the "king of the northwest ferns"
- Lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina): West coast variety; often has sticky dark brown or black feathers covering the head
- Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum): Common misconception is this fern is toxic, although it is often a case of mistaken identity
Trimming ferns keep them looking fresh. Cut away dead, dying, or disfigured fronds. The best time to prune is in early spring before new growth appears or after the new growth has grown out; remove old, fading fronds. Do not prune a fern right before winter. The fronds above protect the crown or rhizome beneath the soil surface.
For potted ferns, trim away any runners or brown, woody roots overgrowing the rim of the pot. Also, if you want to reshape or give a potted plant new life, you can cut the plant down to the base to encourage a new plant to emerge.
Propagating Fiddlehead Ferns
Ferns don't flower or grow from seeds. They grow from spores and are commonly spread by rhizomes underground. You can also divide a crown (a piece of its rhizomatous root). Their natural growing season begins in the spring, but you can plant crowns until the first frost in late fall or winter. To propagate a fern, use division. Dividing the crown is also helpful for controlling the overgrowth of a fern in a particular area. Here's how to divide your fern:
- You will need a trowel or hand shovel to dig up the root ball for in-ground plants. You will also need a sharp knife, a new container or planting area, and fresh moisture-promoting potting soil. Consider mixing compost into the soil.
- If dividing a potted plant, up-end the pot in your hand. Or if in-ground, dig up the rootball. Brush away the soil from the root structure.
- Divide the root in half or quarters. Make sure each section of the root has several leaves. Replant into a new pot or a spot in your garden with partial sun exposure. Keep the soil moist at all times. Since this fern spreads underground, space the plants approximately two to three feet apart when planting.
Potting and Repotting Fiddlehead Ferns
As a general rule, ferns need to be repotted or divided every three to five years. A sign that your plant is ready for a new container is if you notice the middle is dying or the fronds are smaller than usual.
Both plastic and clay pots are suitable as long as you keep your plant's soil moist. A clay pot is porous and will soak up water, unlike a plastic pot; give plants in clay pots more water. Also, choose a shallow pot, usually not more than 6 inches deep. Make sure that the pot has about 2 inches all around to accommodate growth.
The ostrich fern can overwinter in most outdoor locations. In places with freezing temperatures, it will die back in the winter and return in the spring. Most people like to bring the plant indoors and overwinter it in a basement or garage by reducing water and plant food in the late fall or early winter when frosty temperatures occur.
Common Pests & Plant Diseases
Ostrich ferns are deer- and rabbit-resistant. Aside from snails and slugs being attracted to the fern's moist soil, these ferns are not prone to many problems. Ostrich fern borer moth larvae common in the Northeast use ostrich ferns as their only food source. The larva bore in the lower stems and roots of the ostrich fern. Ostrich fern borer moths fly from late August through late September. Eggs overwinter, and larvae hatch in spring. Insecticides will kill this moth; however, insecticides, habitat loss, and human intervention threaten this insect's survival. It is best left alone.
It is rare for this plant to get diseases, but gangrene can be caused by fungus. It appears like small black patches on newly emerged fiddlehead fronds. The infected fronds become weak and break near the base, and severely infected crowns may die. Removal is the only treatment.
Common Problems With Fiddlehead Ferns
This plant is easy to grow and maintain if growing conditions are right. If in-ground, watch for aggressive growth if not kept in check.
Browning or Curling Leaves
Not enough water and too much sun can cause browning leaves of ostrich ferns. Monitor your plant's sun exposure throughout the day and give more water if you notice wilting leaves or if the top of the soil is dry to the touch. Fronds will also curl up if the plant gets too much direct sunlight.
Ferns getting too much water may get yellowed foliage or begin to droop. Withhold water to allow the plant to dry out some, reduce watering frequency, change the pot to one with more drainage holes, or get a terra cotta or clay pot to wick some water away from the plant.
An ostrich fern that does not seem to be growing a lot, especially in the spring, can mean that the plant needs more sunlight. Move the plant to provide more light but avoid direct sun for long periods, slowly acclimate the plant to increased light.
Can fiddlehead ferns (ostrich ferns) be grown indoors?
Yes, ostrich ferns can be kept as houseplants. Keep them out of direct light, keep their soil moist, and make sure they have at least 50% relative humidity.
What plants are similar to ostrich ferns?
Cinnamon ferns (Osmunda cinnamomea) are often confused with ostrich ferns. Cinnamon ferns prefer wetter soils. They are also vase-shaped but not as tall, and the blades are less tapered below the middle.
Where should I place an ostrich fern in the house?
Ostrich ferns do not like direct sunlight, so pick a spot further from the window with diffuse sunlight. Place the plant facing a west- or east-facing windowsill or put it in a south-facing room further from the window.