Ostrich Fern: Dramatic Ground Cover for Shade

Do you have a spot that is shady, damp, and has problems with erosion? Ostrich Ferns might be your solution.

Fern Resurgence

Ferns are enjoying a resurgence of interest and popularity recently, primarily because of fitting into older shady landscapes and their superb deer resistance. The wetter climate that we have experienced in the last couple of years is also a factor that makes people look at this class of plants with renewed scrutiny.

Ferns like shrubs and other flowering perennials have their specific uses and applications for the landscape, and many are garden worthy. Interrupted Fern, Christmas Fern, Tassel Fern, and Maidenhair Fern are all great ferns, but the one I find going back to time and again for its versatility and adaptability is Ostrich Fern, Matteuccia pensylvanica, a native of northern North America.

Landscape Value

Tolerating both wet and drier situations as well as some sun to shade, this fern colonizes an area by spreading rhizomes,  and you can easily propagate it and spread to other areas, by lifting the rhizomes and separating them into pieces. Great for damp areas and erosion control, like a drainage swale, I use it frequently in my designed landscapes as a water-loving plant for soggy areas or beside streams. Best planted in masses, forming a towering backdrop for other shade-loving perennials, it is wonderful on sloping sites that are hard to mow. A perfect candidate for a rain garden, the feathery fern plumes can reach six feet in height when happy, thus the common name ‘Ostrich Fern’. Dying back in winter, the fronds appear vigorously in the early spring, popping out of the ground almost overnight. The clumps also increase in size every year for a lush dramatic ground cover. Dark brown fertile fern fronds bearing spores appear later in the season and people often mistake them for dead fronds. But these are the spore-producing fronds necessary for reproduction. To learn how to collect spores to propagate your collection of ferns, go to ‘How to Grow Ferns From Spores’. Wonderful in dried flower arrangements, I collect these brown fronds and dry them. Wonderful additions to fresh flower arrangements also, I cut the lush fronds in the morning and plunge them into a pail of room temperature water to hydrate for several hours. Then I use them for vase arrangements mixed with flowers, for a dramatic effect.

Fiddleheads-Collecting and Cooking

The fiddleheads which are simply the curled or coiled young fronds emerging in the spring are considered a delicacy. Collected in early spring, look for a tight coil (1-1.5 inch in diameter) held close to the ground with only an inch or two of stem showing. Sometimes there is a brown papery case that surrounds the coil and you remove this by rubbing it off before cooking. Wash the fiddleheads several times in cold water to remove any dirt or grit and you can store them a few days tightly wrapped in the refrigerator before preparing. But the sooner you cook them after harvest, the better. Tasting like a nutty asparagus, the fronds mesh well with stir-frying, hollandaise sauce, tomatoes, and other cheeses. A great source of vitamins A and C, fiddleheads should not be served raw as they can cause stomach upset. For a simple recipe to fix fiddleheads, go to Sauteed Fiddleheads.         Claire is a horticulturalist and landscape design consultant. Owner of Claire Jones Landscapes, LLC, Claire’s designed gardens have been featured in print publications like WSJ and Style Magazine. A garden writer at The Garden Diaries, Claire maintains 3 honeybee hives and gardens at her home in Maryland. 

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