Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris): Identification, Edible Uses and Growing Guide

Ostrich Fern
Ostrich fern, scientific name Matteuccia struthiopteris, is a native plant to North America and a member of the Onocleaceae family. It is known for its distinct beauty and the edibility of its fiddleheads.

Ostrich fern plant profile

Ostrich ferns are sometimes referred to as fiddlehead ferns. This name isn’t entirely appropriate as the new growth on all ferns arise as fiddleheads. Fiddlehead simply refers to the tightly curled shape of the new fronds as they emerge.

It is a deciduous fern, meaning that rather than propagating through seeds and pollination of flowers, it reproduces through spores.

Its delicate and showy fronds resemble ostrich feathers and are responsible for ostrich fern’s common name.

Preferring damp areas with full shade, ostrich fern can reach a mature height of nearly 6 feet and can grow almost as wide.

Because it prefers cool, shaded spots and moist soil, ostrich ferns are a favorite feature in several unique types of gardens, including:

  • Rain gardens
  • Woodland gardens
  • Shade gardens

Where does ostrich fern grow?

It grows best in USDA hardiness zones 3-7, which encompasses areas of the north and southeastern United states.

Ostrich ferns can be found bordering streams and ponds where the climate is damp, and there is plenty of wet soil.

Similar looking plants called lady ferns are the native ferns found in the wooded areas of the west coast, but they are not nearly as lovely nor a coveted edible garden plant.

Because they are shade-loving and require generous amounts of water, they are not readily found in areas prone to drought.

How to identify ostrich fern

Their unique fronds resembling ostrich plumes are one of the attributes that make identifying ostrich ferns a fairly easy task.

When making your identification, look for the following features:

  • Smooth green stems with a deep vase-shaped gutter in the middle.
  • Erect fronds grow from the plant’s middle with spores on the back. These are referred to as fertile fronds. These will remain present on the plant all year long, even as the outside leaves die back.
  • Not all of the fronds on the ostrich fern plants will have spores. The largest green leaves growing on the outside of the plant have no spores and are referred to as sterile fronds.
  • Fronds that are tapered at each end.
  • Fiddleheads that have a papery sheath covering them as they emerge in spring.
Ostrich fern fiddleheads
Ostrich fern

Is ostrich fern edible?

Ostrich fern is an edible ornamental plant, meaning not only does it bring great beauty to a landscape, but it can also be consumed.

In the foraging world, the spring fiddleheads of the ostrich ferns are considered a delicacy.

It is only the tightly curled fiddleheads that are edible. Once the leaves begin to unfurl, they are no longer good for consumption.

When harvesting ostrich fern, you want to ensure you leave some of the fiddleheads in place so the plant will continue growing. This will maintain the sustainability of your plants.

Ostrich fern fiddleheads
Ostrich fern fiddleheads

What does ostrich fern taste like?

Once prepped, these mild-tasting plants have a flavor reminiscent of asparagus.

How to cook with ostrich fern

  • The fiddleheads of any edible fern must be cooked before ingesting.
  • Most recipes call for boiling or steaming before use. 15 minutes of boiling or 10-12 minutes in a steamer will leave your fiddleheads ready for use.

Ostrich fern fiddleheads can be used in nearly any recipe that calls for greens. They are a favorite addition to soups and stews or can be eaten as a side dish with hollandaise sauce. They are even tasty simply dressed with oil and vinegar.

Or try Beer Battered Fiddleheads for a fun treat.

Beer-battered fiddleheads
Beer-battered fiddleheads; source: baconismagic.ca

Ostrich fern growing guide

Ostrich ferns are an excellent choice for that shady spot in your garden where nothing else seems to work.

  • Because of their eventual size, they can make a perfect backdrop for Hostas or Astilbes, both of which enjoy similar growing environments. They can also be used in larger areas of partial shade as a large-scale and dramatic groundcover.
  • Planting ostrich ferns can be done via spores, which will take time, or from bare roots for a faster result. Bare roots are the dormant plants cultivated and preserved for planting.
  • When planting, you will need to be careful of spacing, so that mature plants have room to spread.
  • Ostrich ferns require regular and frequent watering, especially during the first year of growth.
  • While growth can initially seem slow, Ostrich ferns will grow quickly and spread once established.

They are not a good choice for container gardening, as they need more room to grow properly and remain healthy.

You can also check my guide on lemon button ferns.


Lorin is a writer, photographer and nature enthusiast in Sacramento, CA. In addition to gardening, she makes a regular practice of forging for edible plants and flowers. Nature nourishes if you know where to look.

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