Fascinating Fiddleheads

Matteuccia struthiopteris ostrich fernI find the new fern fronds to be fascinating as they emerge in the garden. They are tightly rolled at first, and within days their fiddleheads unroll to reveal the new foliage. The shapes of the newly risen fronds are intriguing, standing tall with the curled end holding what will eventually become long fronds. These are the fiddleheads of Matteuccia struthiopteris (ostrich ferns).

It won’t take them long to stretch 90 to 120 cm tall (3 to 4 feet). The plants I have in the deep shade under a willow against the north side of a fence tend to be a little shorter, about 60 cm tall (2 feet). My tallest ones are on the northern side of a fence, but get an hour or 2 of sun in the early morning. They are also next to a birdbath and may get a little extra water. The blades are about 30 cm wide (1 foot) at the broadest part, tapering to a narrow rounded tip and very narrow base.

Matteuccia struthiopteris, ostrich fernThe ostrich fern’s overall shape is very distinctive, narrow at the bottom and wide at the top. I appreciate this fern’s height for the back of the shade border, and the way it makes an excellent backdrop for other perennials in the garden. They look great with woodland flowers planted around their base.

They spread slowly in my garden, with a few new M. struthiopteris coming up each spring a little ways out from the parent plants. For such a lush looking fern, these are very easy care and have no problems with a cold climate nor the shade. They die back quickly in the fall with the first frosts, but their dark fertile fronds are decorative so I leave them on until spring.

Matteuccia struthiopteris (ostrich fern)Aren’t the new fiddleheads fascinating? You can see the miniature versions of the leaflets in the curl as it uncoils upwards and then out. If you click on the bottom photo you can enlarge it and see the perfect leaflets emerging and the beads of water. When I look at this, I forget that I live on the prairies.

You can find some more information and lots of photos about these and other ferns I grow in zone 3 in this post, and here is a post about Athyrium ferns in the garden.

15 thoughts on “Fascinating Fiddleheads”

  1. Hi Lisa, it sounds like our gardens are on the same schedule.

    Laura, I like getting down and looking at the details in these ferns.

    Megan, I like that they give a vaguely tropical look to my cold prairie garden. also, it’s great to have plants that grow tall fairly quickly, since most perennials get a late start here.

  2. You seem to be a week or two behind me for the season. Many of the ferns around here are now open. But I can still see fiddleheads if I head south to colder areas in the higher elevations of the Adirondacks.

    The way they uncurl to form the leaves is almost as fasinating as a shade garden on the prairie.

  3. Wiseacre, if I could I’d grow tree ferns, but these will have to give the garden that Jurassic look.

    Chey, it’s amazing how interesting ancient plants like ferns can look.

  4. Quite interesting blog I found here :-)I imagine it is very difficult to have a garden in climate zone 3 and I am very curious to find out the changes in nature, when summer comes and what it will look like then!
    I also like watching that type of fern emerging in the garden after a long winter, it grows so quickly, I have some under the pine tree in my garden where nothing else seems to grow, but if you don´t take care the fern becomes very invasive…but I love it!
    Sisah from Northern Germany

  5. This note is to request permission to use a picture of unfurling fronds of ostrich fern. Please e-mail me back and let me know if I can use one of your images in my book. Thank you!

  6. The fiddleheads look somewhat like ours, ours have brownish horsetail coming out in the middle. Yes they are quite fascinating! My husband told me they are original ferns existing for millions years, wow!

    1. Bea, I usually leave those brown fertile fronds on for the fall and winter to give some interest in the garden, and then cut them off in spring when the new growth appears. I’ve also used the brown fronds for decorating wreathes, as they last a long time.

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