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Permaculture Plants: Ostrich Fern





  • The Ostrich Fern is more than just an ornamental.

    Common Name: Ostrich Fern
    Other Names: Fiddlehead Fern
    Scientific Name: Matteuccia struthiopteris or pensylvanica
    Family: Dryopteridaceae (the “Wood Fern” family)
    The edible shoots of the Ostrich Fern are named Fiddleheads.
    Description:

    Ostrich Ferns are fairly well known ornamental plants throughout much of the U.S.; however, the small tightly wound shoots, known as fiddleheads, that pop up for a very short time each Spring are regional delicacies. These fiddleheads have a taste somewhere between a nutty asparagus and brocolli. They thrive in shade and moist soils where many other plants fail to grow at all, or if they do they fail to produce an edible crop. Its ability to act as a groundcover in the dark, wet corners of a property make it an excellent addition to Forest Garden.
    Matteuccia struthiopteris
    Illustration from Scandinavian Ferns by Benjamin Øllgaard and Kirsten Tind, Rhodos, 1993
    History:
    Appears to be native to northern temperate climates in North America, Europe, and Asia. While there are a few small commercial producers of Ostrich Ferns, they are almost all for the production of ornamental plants… not food.
    Sauteed fiddleheads ready to eat!
    Trivia:

    • The scientific name Struthiopteris comes from the Latin (struthio = ostrich) and the Greek (pteris = wing).
    • Shoots of the Ostrich Fern resemble the head of a fiddle… hence the name Fiddlehead Fern.
    • This is a very popular seasonal delicacy in rural New England.
    • Many other fern shoots are eaten, but they have varying levels of safety.
    Fiddleheads are seasonal delicacies.
    USING THIS PLANT
    Primary Uses:
    • Cooked shoots (a.k.a “Fiddleheads”) – steamed, sauteed, boiled
    • Dipped in beer batter and fried!
    • Pickled
    • Frozen
    • Canned
    Secondary Uses:
    • Ornamental plant
    • Shade plant
    • Wet soil plant
    • Pond edge plant
    • Groundcover (plant Ostrich Ferns 2-4 feet apart for groundcover)
    • Reports of roots being edible after being peeled and cooked
    • Native food source for a few caterpillars of moths and butterflies
    Yield: varies on the patch/colony size
    Harvesting: Early Spring (it is a short harvest season). Pick when the fiddleheads are tight. They are still edible when taller than a few inches, but they quickly become more tough.
    Storage: Up to about a week fresh in a cool place

    Fiddleheads about to be pickled.
    DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT

    AHS Heat Zone: No reliable information available
    Chill Requirement: Unlikely as there is no flowering or fruiting, but no good data
    Plant Type: Large Perennial Herbaceous Plant
    Leaf Type: Deciduous
    Forest Garden Use: Herbaceous Layer, Groundcover Layer
    Cultivars/Varieties: No improved varieties
    Pollination: Spore producer
    Flowering: None. Spore producer
    Life Span: Functionally indefinite as this plant will keep spreading through rhizomes
    Ostrich Ferns make an amazing, tall groundcover for shaded areas.

    PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT
    Size: 2-6 feet (0.6-1.8 meters) tall and indefinitely wide forming large col
    Roots: Running habit based on its rhizomatous roots (underground stems that send out roots and shoots)
    Growth Rate: Medium to Fast
    Ostrich Ferns can grow at the edges of ponds and streams.

    GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT
    Light: Part to Full Shade (can tolerate full sun if soil is constantly moist)
    Shade: Tolerates Full Shade
    Moisture: Medium to Very Wet
    pH: strongly acidic to fairly neutral soil (3. – 7.0)
    Special Considerations for Growing:
    Ostrich Ferns can tolerate wet feet and so they can be planted at the edge of ponds in full sun to full shade. If they do not have consistently wet soil, they will not tolerate full sun.
    Propagation: Division (easy). Spores (difficult).
    Maintenance: None
    This is a vegan recipe… personally, I would replace the tofu with chicken or fish.

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