Plant 78

Matteuccia struthiopteris (L.) Todaro (Onocleaceae)


Ostrich fern

Ostrich ferns, with their vase-like arrangement of pale, green sterile fronds (up to 2 m long), are popular hardy, horticultural ferns in Europe. The fern is native to a broad band of habitats where there are rich, moist soils (e.g., riverbanks). Its distribution sweeps through the temperate regions of northern and eastern Europe, across northern Asia and into northern North America. In parts of its distribution, especially in Europe, it is considered a threatened species.

The underground rootstock of the ostrich fern is vertical, with developing fronds crowded at one end. During the summer months this gives the fern the appearance of a shuttlecock, each frond reminiscent of an ostrich feather; hence the common and scientific names. The fern's generic name commemorates the mid nineteenth-century Italian physicist and politician Carlo Matteucci.

The ostrich fern reproduces in two ways. Vegetatively, it forms runners that produce dense colonies of new crowns, each crowded close to the parental plant. Such a strategy means it can colonise suitable habitats rapidly, and it can persist in flood-prone areas. In contrast, spores are produced on special fertile fronds which are about one-third the length of the sterile fronds. Fertile fronds are brown; they develop in the autumn and persist over winter, releasing their spores in the early spring. These spores will eventually germinate and form a new fern.

In the wild, optimal growth of the ostrich fern appears to be associated with canopy cover, with the size of sterile fronds and the number of fertile fronds decreasing as shade increases. Data also suggest that the majority of ostrich fern reproduction in the wild is via vegetative reproduction. The fern's life history means its visual and horticultural appeal can decline as the summer progresses.

Besides horticulture value, the ostrich fern is one of a small number of ferns that have been used as foods. Other food ferns include the vegetable fern (Diplazium esculentum) and bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), which are particularly popular in Asia. The immature, unrolled, crozier-like sterile fronds (fiddleheads) of the ostrich fern, when cooked, have been used as an important traditional food in northeastern North America. In Norway, the fern was apparently used to make beer, whilst in Russia it controlled gut parasites. Today, ostrich fern fiddleheads remain an important element of the rural economy of the American state of Maine; the rituals of harvest and consumption being seen as culturally important in the state.

Further reading

Fuller D 2012. Bulletin #2540: Ostrich fern fiddleheads. University of Maine.

Grzybowski M and Kruk M 2015. Variations in the population structure and ecology of Matteuccia struthiopteris. Population Ecology 57: 127-141.

von Aderkas P 1984. Economic history of ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, the edible fiddlehead. Economic Botany 38: 14-23.

Stephen Harris