Ostrich Fern Is a Stately Option for the Shade

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Virtues: This eastern North American fern has impressive fronds that inspire the common names of ostrich fern and shuttlecock fern. Indeed they look like the large tail feathers of the ostrich, or the stiff tail of shuttlecock in badminton. This giant fern contributes an upright, vase-like shape to shaded spaces that are often populated with mounding plants like hosta and heuchera. Its form offers nice contrast here. As long as the soil doesn't dry out, ostrich fern is a maintenance-free shade perennial, and if it's happy it will spread to fill in bare spaces. It is not bothered by deer or rabbits, and its spreading roots can add stability where erosion is a concern.

This photo shows ostrich ferns in late spring, with the tops of their sterile fronds still coiled. After unfurling completely, these fronds will remain upright to slightly arched, maintaining the fern's vase shape. The dark structures at the base of some of these ferns are their fertile fronds, which typically develop at midsummer and remain present through the winter.

This photo shows ostrich ferns in late spring, with the tops of their sterile fronds still coiled. After unfurling completely, these fronds will remain upright to slightly arched, maintaining the fern's vase shape. The dark structures at the base of some of these ferns are their fertile fronds, which typically develop at midsummer and remain present through the winter.

Common name: Ostrich fern, shuttlecock fern

Botanical name: Matteuccia struthiopteris

Exposure: Part to full shade

Foliage: Medium green fronds emerge in the spring, starting out as tightly coiled "fiddleheads" and unrolling until they are upright. These large, familiar fronds are sterile, and they can decline after midsummer, when fertile fronds begin to appear at the center of the fern. These dark brown, spiky fertile fronds reach just one to two feet tall and remain present through winter, long after the sterile fronds have died away.

Habit: The sterile fronds of ostrich fern can reach six feet in native habitats, but often they remain two to four feet tall in a garden. The strongly upright fronds are arranged in a circle that forms a vase shape.

Origin: Swamps and damp woods of eastern North America, from Newfoundland south through Arkansas and west through southern British Columbia, South Dakota and Missouri.

How to grow it: Plant ostrich fern in part shade or full shade, in soil that remains consistently moist or even wet. Be careful not to bury the crown of the fern, from where the fronds emerge. Ostrich fern can be planted as dormant roots in spring or fall. Where ostrich fern is happy, it will spread by rhizomes. It can take several years for this fern to establish itself, during which time top growth can appear slow and lacking. However, once it has a good root system, growth will accelerate, and this fern proves quite long-lived. It is pest resistant (including deer and rabbits), but it doesn't like high heat and humidity. USDA Zones 3–7.

Image credit: By MurielBendel - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0