Ostritch Fern

Ostrich Fern; aka,
Shuttlecock Fern; aka,
Fiddlehead Fern


Truly a classic deciduous fern, Ostritch Fern stands among the hardiest of gardened ferns. Its fronds are large, vase-shaped, & sweeping. In Autumn the whole fern turns a gorgeous yellow-brown or tan.

The currently recognized scientific name is Matteuccia struthhiopteris, but it has also been known as M. pensylvanica & Pteris nodulosa.

In really cold areas it shouldn't be cut back until spring, as the fronds help to protect the mounding upright rootstock, but in Zone 8 when the browned fronds begin to lose their elegance, they can be cut off at any time in winter. However, new fronds will erupt at the center of the clump in late summer or in autumn. These, before winter's end, will develop into special winter-fronds that are reddish colored & quite striking. If a gardener does undertake a bit of autumn or winter trimming of the large tan fronds, be careful to avoid the young smaller winter fronds.

It is these winter-fronds upon which spoors develop, then dry out before bright green spring fronds re-errupt. These fertile fronds are very upright & much smaller than the sweeping sterile fronds. The fertile fronds lend the Ostritch Fern a considerable distinction from other gardened ferns. New spring growth will be of sterile fronds only, which have the additional distinguishing element of white-haired stems. The sterile spring fiddleheads are the ones that are edible.

I've never attempted any fern cultivation from spores, though it is presumedly not difficult if you have a knack for it, & if you set up a system for spore propagation. But for garden propagation of the Ostritch Fern, it colonizes so freely, by means of underground stolons/rhizomes that, that all one needs to do is take young plants from near the parent to place elsewhere.

Other than absolutely requiring persistent moisture, & burning if placed in much sun, it is otherwise going to be an almost no-maintenance fern. The plant will get larger if it is in morning-sun with lots & lots of moisture, but in zone 8 even morning sun may be too much & it should experience at most dappled sunlight. It will thrive in deep shade, but will never get enormous.

In conditions it likes a great deal its growth in terms of sweeping height will still not be particularly rapid, but it will spread aggressively by rhizomes & will need to have young plants removed in order to restrict its desire to colonize. It should not be placed near sensitive little shade plants, as the ropy rootstock & rhizomes of the Ostritch Fern out-competes anything the least bit delicate.

The Ostritch Fern shown in the picture above is tucked behind the Alaska Cedar against a fence in considerable shade. I had to lift up a cedar limb to get the June photo. The area is well watered, but because the cedar sucks up a lot of moisture, the fern does experience a bit of dryness from time to time, without showing injury. It has shown no signs of wanting to become a very large fern in this setting, & has thus far been only about a two-foot fern, very pretty but not large enough to make itself particularly visible from its tucked-behind spot.

In the wild it selects rather poor but very damp soils in faintly acide to acid-neutral to slightly alkaline & shaded areas. In its ideal forest locations it can grow to the shocking size of ten feet, six feet commonly. But in loamy garden soil it typically only reaches three feet of height, potentially five when very mature after a few years. Although in the wild it is found in surprisingly mucky muddy places, for gardens it would become too fragile in bog settings, so that persistantly moist yet well-draining soil is preferred.

Very widely distributed, Ostritch Fern is a circumpolar species found in the far nothern of Alaska to Newfoundland, but also "down here" here in the Pacific Northwest, & in the midwest & south to the Viriginias. It grows in the rest of the Northern Hemisphere as well, especially from Russia through Asia, including Japan.

The spring fiddleheads are a true delicacy, & a common part of the Japanese diet. Westerners frequently are unaware of their excellence, although there are exceptions, as it is much appreciated by New Englanders, & is the state vegetable of Vermont.

In Japan wild-gathered fiddleheads are perhaps too much a regular part of the diet, as they seem to have a relationship to statistical increases in colon cancer. Fiddleheads harvested from garden-cultivated ferns do not share the slight carcinogenic factor, nor do westerns who eat them ever eat so many as do the Japanese, who even buy them canned much as we'd buy canned string-beans or peas.

Ostrich Fern fiddleheads are numerous in April, & can be harvested when about two inches from the ground & still tightly rolled & tender. Although our Ostritch Fern is too little to harvest, I've collected them from the wild, & I've bought them at Uwajimaya (a local Japanese grocery) both fresh & canned, & they're one of my favorite "unusual" vegetables.

In the last decade or so, there have been some few indications that fiddleheads may be toxic if eaten raw, & even though no toxin has ever been identified, it is nevertheless commonly suggested that they be boiled no less than ten minutes to be completely safe. This is overcooking by the standard of Japanese cookery, & personally I wouldn't be at all paranoid about shorter cook times; still, I will repeat that recommendation, & some individuals may wish to shorten the preparation time:

To prepare them for the table, clean the brown crusty bits away, wash, then they're ready to prepare. By the overly cautious safety margins, they are to be boiled for ten minutes, or steam for 15 to 20 minutes, then used in any manner you would use asparagus, whether hot off the stove, with butter or hollandais sauce, or chilled for later use with vinegar & oil & a sprinkling of oregano or basil, or mixed into chilled salad. They are a great ingredient for quiche recipes & in soups. They can also be pickled.

Alternatively, they can be steamed or blanched for a shorter time than the over-cautious health recommendation suggests, but then finish cooking them as needed by frying them in butter, then sprinkle with sesame seeds & serve. This is my favorite way of eating them. Or they can be blanched for two minutes then kept in the freezer to use later, after the brief fiddlehead season is long over; simply thaw & finish cooking as needed.


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