Ostrich fern, scientifically known as Matteuccia struthiopteris, is a specie of colony-forming fern belonging to the family Onocleaceae. One of the tallest ferns in cultivation, its characteristic appearance resembles ostrich plumes. In cooler climates, the plant grows in full sun but needs protection from the sun’s heat in warmer regions. The ostrich fern occurs naturally in regions with a temperate climate, particularly in North America, northern Asia, and northern Europe. Other names used to refer to this perennial plant include shuttlecock fern and garden fern.
The large divided leaves of the ostrich fern are dimorphic, which means the fronds can be either sterile or fertile. Sterile fronds are nearly upright, measuring about 3.3 to 5.8 feet (1 to 1.7 m) tall and roughly 8 to 14 inches (20 to 35 cm) broad. They are short and taper off gradually to a bare stem at the base. Fertile fronds, on the other hand, are shorter and measure approximately 16 to 24 inches (40 to 60 cm) in length. When ripe, the frond color turns brown and the constricted and highly-modified leaf tissue becomes curled over the sporangia, a plant structure that develops in autumn and releases spores at the start of spring.
Immature fronds of the ostrich fern, commonly known as fiddleheads, are edible and treated as vegetables. They are considered a delicacy in most rural areas of the northeastern region of North America. This fern is cultivated in Japan, and the sprouts, locally known as kogomi, are also a delicacy. The delicate flavor of this vegetable is comparable to that of snap peas and asparagus. This fern is often used in preparing omelets, soups or salads.
Propagation of the ostrich fern typically involves simply clumping it and moving it to another location. Another method of propagation is through rhizomes, horizontal underground stems that send out roots and new shoots to reproduce the plant. This ornamental fern thrives in rich and moist soil and should be planted in spacious areas because it has a tendency to grow in every direction. Overhead watering should be avoided because it can knock down the fronds and disturb the vase-like shape of the plant.
Generally, frost is the worst enemy of the ostrich fern. There are no known insects or diseases that normally attack this fern, with the exception of the borer moth caterpillar in the New England region. These caterpillars destroy the root system or bore through the stalks of the fern.