Matteuccia struthiopteris (Ostrich Fern)

Plant Info
Also known as:
Family:Dryopteridaceae (Wood Fern)
Life cycle:perennial
Habitat:part shade, shade, sun; moist to wet; swampy woods, thickets
Fruiting season:summer
Plant height:2 to 6 feet
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: FACW MW: FACW NCNE: FAC
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information


[photo of fiddlehead] Plants emerge in early spring; the stem may be covered with very short white hairs that typically do not persist.

Leaves and stems: Leaf attachment: basal Leaf type: compound

[photo of sterile frond] Leaf is once compound, leaflets deeply lobed, divided almost to mid-nerve. In outline, the leaf blade (frond) is widest above the middle, rapidly narrowing at the tip, gradually tapering to the base, nearly to the ground (shaped like an ostrich feather). The lowest leaflets are only about 1 inch long.

[photo of leaflet underside] Veins are straight, not forked, in a chevron pattern most easily seen on the underside. The leaflet midrib may be covered to varying degrees in short hairs. The leaves, nearly erect to arching, grow in a circular clump with the fruiting fertile spike (if present) growing in the middle. The leaves die with the first frost.

Spores: Fruit type: spores on stalk

[photo of fertile fronds] Ostrich Fern has at least 1 spike 20 to 50 inches tall growing in the center of the leaf clump. 25 or more pairs of hard tubular-shaped "pods" contain the spores in somewhat bead-like structures. These fertile fronds are initially green but turn dark brown with maturity and persist through the winter, releasing spores the following spring before dying back.


Since the leaves, size and overall structure of Ostrich Fern, Cinnamon Fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomea) and Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana) closely resemble each other, they can most easily be distinguished by the fruiting fertile fronds. If spores are not present, the easiest way to distinguish the 3 species is to turn over the leaf and see if there is a tuft of hair at the junction of the main stem and leaflet - only Cinnamon Fern has this feature. Ostrich Fern can further be distinguished by the ostrich-feather shape of the leaf, with very short leaflets going almost down to the ground, and the lack of forked veins on the underside of the leaflets. Interrupted Fern has forked veins and its lowest leaflets are about 3 inches long. The fertile fronds of Ostrich Fern are also similar to those of Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), which is generally shorter and has only 5 to 11 pairs of spore-bearing structures. Ostrich Fern has been used in landscaping but can be a bit aggressive and form large colonies. The fiddleheads are edible, quite tasty sautéed in a little butter (what isn't!). There are 2 varieties of M. struthiopteris, with var. struthiopteris native to Eurasia and var. pensylvanica in North America.

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More photos

Photos by K. Chayka taken in Ramsey and Pine counties. Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken in Olmsted County and a private garden in Anoka County.


Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?

Posted by: Steve - Cloquet
on: 2015-07-23 08:57:04

This year I found 2 different patches on my property of these ferns. One patch is about 10' x 25' with over 100 clumps about 5+ feet tall and the other area is about 5' x'10 of 3 foot tall plants. The first is growing near some Alder brush and the smaller patch is under some pine trees. I ate my first fiddlehead ferns this spring and it was a meal to remember.

Posted by: Sue - Minnetonka
on: 2016-06-22 15:13:17

My Ostrich ferns are thriving - too much though. They are taking over my gardens. Is there anyway to contain them? Would a landscaping barrier help - like some type of edging surroundings the ferns? Thanks

Posted by: Linda W - Maplewood near North St. Paul
on: 2016-10-03 23:38:17

I bought an ostrich fern at the master gardener sale last spring. It came in a pot with some sweet woodruff. Now in Sept the fern is all brown wilted and looks dead. The sweet woodruff looks fine. From the info above it sounds like this is normal. I really want to establish some ferns under my pines. How do I promote a healthy colony? I'm worried it won't come back.

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2016-10-04 06:01:33

Linda, you should probably ask your Master Gardener about this, but I'll take a stab at it: don't judge the fern by the condition of the sweet woodruff (which is a non-native species and potentially invasive, though not all Master Gardeners pay attention to that sort of thing). Wait until next season and see if the fern comes back. Under pines is not ideal habitat for ostrich fern, but it will return if it has adequate soil conditions, moisture and sunlight. We have bulblet fern under spruce trees in loam/clay soil that gets average moisture, and they do very well. If you have dry soil your fern choices are limited and ostrich fern wouldn't be one of them. If you need more info/help please ask your Master Gardener or post on our Facebook page.

Posted by: Ellen S. - Hennepin County - Edina
on: 2016-10-29 16:17:09

We have lots of these ferns in our yard, originally spread from the neighbor's yard. It spreads a lot, but hacking the roots with a spade or hoe kills it. I didn't know it was edible. I'll have to try some in spring.

Posted by: Ray - Rochester
on: 2017-08-09 19:04:37

Thank you for the info on the spore spike. I'd thought there was something wrong with my ferns!

Posted by: Carolyn - St. Cloud
on: 2019-07-13 22:49:39

What are the conditions under which ostrich fern grows to 6 feet?

Posted by: kay juhnke - Bemidji
on: 2020-12-07 01:54:38

can the spore be planted for more ferns----is the root system strong to help prevent erosion?

Posted by: christopherk - Byron
on: 2021-04-16 13:31:04

I've noticed where there is ostrich ferns, buckthorn and garlic mustard is much thinner, if at all present. I'm trying to transplant them into areas where buckthorn has been removed to see if it can prevent seedlings from getting energy.

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