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Ostrich Fern

Matteucia struthiopteris

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Plant Profile

Oncleaceae (Onocleoids)
Also in this family:
Life Cycle:
Maximum Size:
180 centimetres tall
Fens, gardens, waterside, woodland.
Flowerless. Ferns have spores rather than flowers.
The spores ripen from June to August.
A tufted deciduous fern with bright green 1-pinnate leaves. The outer leaves are long and narrow.
Other Names:
Fiddlehead Fern, Ostrich-feather Fern, Shuttlecock Fern.
Frequency (UK):

Other Information


Matteuccia struthiopteris, also known as ostrich fern or shuttlecock fern, is a species of fern that is native to North America, Asia and Europe. It is a hardy, deciduous fern that can grow to be up to 4-6 feet (1.2-1.8 meters) tall and wide. The fronds are large, triangular in shape and are bright green in color. The new fronds emerge in the spring as a tightly coiled fiddlehead, which unfurls to reveal the mature frond. The plant has a thick, erect central stem from which the fronds emerge, and a large network of underground rhizomes that allow it to spread over time to form large colonies.

This species is found in many different types of habitats, including deciduous and coniferous woods, along streams and rivers, as well as in wetland and bogs. It typically prefers moist, well-draining soils, but can also tolerate some drought conditions once established.

This plant is widely used as an ornamental plant. Due to its striking appearance and hardiness, it's a great addition to a garden, it can be grown in rock gardens, woodland gardens, or along a stream or pond. It also can be used in large containers on patios, decks or terraces, or they can be used as indoor house plants. It can be propagated by spores or by division of the rhizomes.

The Ostrich fern is relatively easy to care for, it prefers consistently moist soil, but can tolerate some drought once established. It prefers filtered or dappled sunlight rather than full sun, so it should be planted in a shaded area or under a partial canopy of trees. It can be fertilized with a slow-release fertilizer in spring for best growth.


Ostrich fern (Matteucia struthiopteris) is a popular fern that is commonly found in temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, including North America, Europe, and Asia. This fern is known for its distinctive fronds, which resemble the plumes of an ostrich.

Ostrich ferns are deciduous, meaning that their fronds die back in the winter and new fronds emerge in the spring. The fronds can grow up to 6 feet in length and 1-2 feet in width. They are bright green in color and have a glossy, leathery texture. The fronds are pinnate, meaning that they are divided into leaflets along a central stem. The leaflets are serrated and slightly curved, giving the fronds a feathery appearance.

One of the unique features of the ostrich fern is its fertile fronds, which are much shorter and more compact than the sterile fronds. The fertile fronds emerge in mid-summer and are brownish in color. They bear clusters of spores on the undersides of the leaflets, which are released into the air in the fall.

Ostrich ferns are easy to grow and are a popular choice for gardeners looking to add texture and interest to their landscape. They prefer moist, well-drained soil and partial shade, although they can also tolerate full sun in cooler climates. Ostrich ferns are also tolerant of a wide range of soil types, including clay, sand, and loam.

In addition to their ornamental value, ostrich ferns are also a popular edible plant. The fiddleheads (the tightly coiled, immature fronds) are harvested in the spring before they unfurl and are considered a delicacy in many cultures. They have a nutty flavor and are often used in stir-fries, soups, and salads.

However, it is important to note that only ostrich ferns (Matteucia struthiopteris) are safe to eat, as other types of ferns may be toxic. It is also important to harvest fiddleheads sustainably, taking only a small portion of the fronds and leaving the rest to grow and produce spores.

Ostrich ferns can also be used for erosion control, as their extensive root systems can help stabilize soil on slopes and riverbanks. They are also a popular choice for creating naturalized areas in wetlands, woodlands, and other natural habitats.

Propagation of ostrich ferns can be done by spores, although this method can be slow and unpredictable. It is more common to propagate ostrich ferns through division, by dividing established clumps into smaller sections and replanting them in new locations.

Ostrich ferns are also known for their medicinal properties. They have been traditionally used to treat a variety of ailments, including diarrhea, fever, and inflammation. Recent studies have shown that ostrich ferns contain compounds that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, which may have potential for use in treating chronic diseases.

While ostrich ferns are generally hardy and easy to care for, they can be susceptible to a few pests and diseases. Slugs and snails are a common problem, as they can damage the fronds. To control these pests, it is recommended to remove any debris or dead leaves around the plants and to use slug bait if necessary.

The ostrich fern is a fascinating and versatile plant that offers both aesthetic and practical benefits. Whether you are looking to add texture and interest to your garden, create a naturalized area, or harvest fiddleheads for culinary use, the ostrich fern is an excellent choice. With its hardiness and adaptability, it is sure to thrive in a wide range of growing conditions.

In addition to being a popular edible plant, ostrich ferns are also valued for their cultural significance in many indigenous communities. The fiddleheads are a traditional food source for several indigenous groups in North America, including the Mi'kmaq, Maliseet, and Penobscot peoples. These groups have been harvesting and preparing fiddleheads for centuries, and have developed traditional methods for cooking and preserving them.

Ostrich ferns also have a rich history in folklore and mythology. In Celtic folklore, the fern was believed to have magical properties and was associated with protection, luck, and fertility. In Japan, the fern is a symbol of resilience and endurance, and is often used in traditional Japanese gardens.

It's worth noting that while ostrich ferns are generally safe and non-toxic, they should be handled with care. The fronds can cause skin irritation in some people, especially if they come into contact with the sap or broken leaves. To avoid skin irritation, it's recommended to wear gloves when handling ostrich ferns and to wash your hands thoroughly after working with them.

Ostrich ferns can be incorporated into a variety of garden designs, from naturalistic woodland settings to formal shade gardens. They are often used in mass plantings to create a lush, textural effect, and can also be combined with other shade-loving plants, such as hostas and astilbes.

When planting ostrich ferns, it's important to give them enough space to spread out. They can grow quite large over time, so it's recommended to space them at least 3 feet apart. They also prefer a consistent supply of moisture, so it's important to water them regularly during dry periods.

Ostrich ferns are relatively low-maintenance plants, but they do benefit from occasional fertilization. A slow-release fertilizer, such as a balanced 10-10-10 formula, can be applied in early spring to encourage healthy growth.

Overall, the ostrich fern is a beautiful, adaptable plant that offers a range of benefits to gardeners, landscapers, and nature enthusiasts alike. Whether you're looking to add a touch of natural beauty to your backyard, harvest fiddleheads for a tasty springtime treat, or simply appreciate the unique texture and form of these beautiful plants, the ostrich fern is an excellent choice.

Distribution Map

Reproduced by kind permission of the BSBI.

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