Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
If you have space in your shady garden and really want to make a statement, consider adding ostrich ferns. They are a native fern that can grow up to 8 feet tall.
What are Ostrich Ferns?
Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) are perennial ferns that are indigenous to the Northern Hemisphere, including the temperate areas of Northern Europe, Northern Asia and Northern North America. In North America they are hard in zones 3 – 7.
Ostrich ferns grow in large colonies in wet areas such as stream banks. They grow from rhizomes, but spread via stolons which are underground runners. These ferns spread rapidly and can become invasive.
They form colonies that are so dense that they are resistant to floodwaters. You can use these large ferns to stabilize stream banks if erosion is a problem.
The ferns can grow 3 – 8 feet tall and 3 – 5 feet wide, although they tend to be on the smaller end of the scale in cultivation. Each plant has two types of fronds, fertile and sterile. It’s the sterile fronds that we find attractive. They look like ostrich feathers, hence the name. In the spring the fronds emerge as fiddleheads which are considered a delicacy.
The fertile fronds are smaller, only about 2 feet tall and dark green. They emerge after the sterile fronds. Interestingly, they develop their spores on the rear of the fronds like other ferns but, unlike other ferns, hold on to their spores all winter, not releasing them until the following spring.
Ferns do not have flowers or seeds. Flowers and seeds are a relatively new way for plants to reproduce. Ferns are much more ancient and use spores to reproduce.
How to Grow Ostrich Ferns
Purchase your ferns from a local native plant nursery. Don’t try transplanting them from the wild. Populations of native plants are declining rapidly due to habitat loss and climate change. Always purchase native plants from a reputable nursery that either grows them themselves or harvests them sustainably from the wild, usually on private land with permission.
If you are using ostrich ferns in a shade garden with other shade-loving plants, plant them in the back as a dramatic backdrop. Space them 3 – 4 feet apart and 3 – 4 feet from other plants. They will spread rapidly and fill in the gaps very quickly. Plan on dividing them frequently to prevent them from taking over the entire garden.
Ostrich ferns do best in full or partial shade. They will tolerate more sun than most ferns, but the more sun they receive, the more water they will require. In warmer climates, they need more shade and more water.
Ostrich ferns are one of those rare plants that likes clay soil. They like it rich and with lots of moisture. Their ideal pH is neutral to slightly acidic, 5 – 6.5.
Plant your ferns in a shady wet spot in your yard. They need moist soil. If you don’t have an area in your yard that is naturally moist, plan on watering your ferns frequently to keep the soil moist. A thick layer of mulch will also help to keep the soil moist between waterings. Ferns do not need to be fertilized. Adding compost to the soil every spring is sufficient.
After a hard frost in the fall, you can remove the dead sterile fronds and leave the fertile fronds for winter interest. Remember, the spores on the fertile fronds will not be released until the following spring.
How to Divide Ostrich Ferns
Ostrich ferns spread very rapidly so you will want to divide them regularly to keep them in check. Spring, as the fiddleheads are emerging, is the best time to divide your ferns. Use a garden fork to lift the root mass.
The plants grow from rhizomes, but spread via underground runners called stolons. You don’t need the stolons, so you can cut them away and discard them. Just keep the rhizomes. Discard any dead or diseased rhizomes keeping only the healthy ones. Make sure that each remaining rhizome has both foliage and roots. The divisions won’t grow if they have no roots. Plant your new divisions 3 – 4 feet apart and water well.
© 2021 Caren White
Caren White (author) on January 27, 2021:
I had a shady yard for years so I learned a lot about plants that grow in the shade. There are more choices than I realized.
Abby Slutsky from America on January 27, 2021:
What wonderful gardening wisdom you have. I am always looking for plants that can tolerate some shade.
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on January 26, 2021: