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Plant Profile: Matteuccia struthiopteris 'The King' (Ostrich Fern)

As I traveled through much of the northeastern United States, I was always struck by the amazing masses of the native (Canada south to Northern Virginia) Ostrich fern, which usually congregated happily in low wetlands. While I was determined to grow this heat-despising northeastern native fern in the Southeast and did actually manage to keep it alive, I failed to manage much more than a depauperate 1' tall version of what was a 3-4' tall regal specimen in the North.


I subsequently heard of a selection of Ostrich fern, aka Matteuccia struthiopteris, that reportedly grew well in the South, but it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that I finally was able to acquire it under the name, Matteuccia 'The King'. As promised, the Matteuccia 'The King' was amazing in our garden, quickly colonizing a patch of ground, spreading by means of underground runners…even growing in less than its ideal evenly moist soil and thriving under a couple of magnolias. If you really want to see Ostrich fern take off, plant it in a part sun site with soil that stays moist and stand back. Did I mention that Ostrich fern is also deer-resistant ?

Ostrich fern isn't a fern for all gardens, since it can be aggressive in its spreading nature, but when planted in an appropriate site, it’s quite extraordinary. The deciduous fronds emerge in mid-spring in what is truly a photographic moment…assuming you don’t first eat the young emerging fiddleheads, as often happens in both fine dinning establishments in Japan and conversely poor pockets of the northern United States.

Ostrich fern has what are known as dimorphic fronds (fern leaves). Dimorphic is a fancy way of saying the fern has differing male and female fronds. Most fernshave a single uniform leaf type with the female spores hidden on the leaf back, but Ostrich ferns have 18" tall, fertile female fronds that look completely different from the 3' tall ostrich wing-like male leaves. One of my favorite landscape features of Ostrich fern are the female fronds, which turn brown but remain rigidly upright through the entire winter after the male deciduous fronds have long gone dormant in fall, creating a dramatic winter garden effect. In spring, the fertile fronds finally release the developing dust-like spores (fern seed), that they've held tightly all winter. Gardeners in the UK like Ostrich fern so much, they gave it their prestigious Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit...shouldn't we at least give it a place in our gardens?