Monday, April 30, 2012

Permaculture Plants: Ostrich Fern

The Ostrich Fern is more than just an ornamental.

Common Name: Ostrich Fern
Other Names: Fiddlehead Fern
Scientific Name: Matteuccia struthiopteris or pensylvanica
Family: Dryopteridaceae (the "Wood Fern" family)
The edible shoots of the Ostrich Fern are named Fiddleheads.

Ostrich Ferns are fairly well known ornamental plants throughout much of the U.S.; however, the small tightly wound shoots, known as fiddleheads, that pop up for a very short time each Spring are regional delicacies. These fiddleheads have a taste somewhere between a nutty asparagus and brocolli. They thrive in shade and moist soils where many other plants fail to grow at all, or if they do they fail to produce an edible crop. Its ability to act as a groundcover in the dark, wet corners of a property make it an excellent addition to Forest Garden.
Matteuccia struthiopteris
Illustration from Scandinavian Ferns by Benjamin Øllgaard and Kirsten Tind, Rhodos, 1993
Appears to be native to northern temperate climates in North America, Europe, and Asia. While there are a few small commercial producers of Ostrich Ferns, they are almost all for the production of ornamental plants... not food.
  • The scientific name Struthiopteris comes from the Latin (struthio = ostrich) and the Greek (pteris = wing).
  • Shoots of the Ostrich Fern resemble the head of a fiddle... hence the name Fiddlehead Fern.
  • This is a very popular seasonal delicacy in rural New England.
  • Many other fern shoots are eaten, but they have varying levels of safety.

Fiddleheads are seasonal delicacies.
Primary Uses:
  • Cooked shoots (a.k.a "Fiddleheads") - steamed, sauteed, boiled
  • Dipped in beer batter and fried!
  • Pickled 
  • Frozen
  • Canned
Secondary Uses:
  • Ornamental plant
  • Shade plant
  • Wet soil plant
  • Pond edge plant
  • Groundcover (plant Ostrich Ferns 2-4 feet apart for groundcover)
  • Reports of roots being edible after being peeled and cooked
  • Native food source for a few caterpillars of moths and butterflies
Yield: varies on the patch/colony size
Harvesting: Early Spring (it is a short harvest season). Pick when the fiddleheads are tight. They are still edible when taller than a few inches, but they quickly become more tough.
Storage: Up to about a week fresh in a cool place
AHS Heat Zone: No reliable information available
Chill Requirement: Unlikely as there is no flowering or fruiting, but no good data
Plant Type: Large Perennial Herbaceous Plant
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Herbaceous Layer, Groundcover Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: No improved varieties
Pollination: Spore producer
Flowering: None. Spore producer
Life Span: Functionally indefinite as this plant will keep spreading through rhizomes
Ostrich Ferns make an amazing, tall groundcover for shaded areas.

Size: 2-6 feet (0.6-1.8 meters) tall and indefinitely wide forming large col
Roots: Running habit based on its rhizomatous roots (underground stems that send out roots and shoots)
Growth Rate: Medium to Fast

Light: Part to Full Shade (can tolerate full sun if soil is constantly moist)
Shade: Tolerates Full Shade
Moisture: Medium to Very Wet
pH: strongly acidic to fairly neutral soil (3. - 7.0)
Special Considerations for Growing:
Ostrich Ferns can tolerate wet feet and so they can be planted at the edge of ponds in full sun to full shade. If they do not have consistently wet soil, they will not tolerate full sun.
Propagation: Division (easy). Spores (difficult).
Maintenance: None
This is a vegan recipe... personally, I would replace the tofu with chicken or fish.


  1. Beautiful plant! I will try to eat some 'fiddleheads' in spring! This Matteuccia has been reassigned to the new family Onocleaceae now, was formerly classified as a member of the Dryopteridaceae,

  2. Very love the setting at Ostrich Ferns...its made curious what beyond while tracking along the ferns within.


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