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A staple plant of the American woodland garden, the ostrich fern boasts stately, large upright fronds that look like ostrich plumes. They create a lovely backdrop for other plants and spread to easily fill a garden space. In spring the numerous fiddleheads of emerging foliage can also be picked for a snack as the ostrich fern is edible. It also makes a stunning element in a fresh flower bouquet. Some gardening experts feel every shade garden should include this trusty plant.
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More textural than colorful, ostrich ferns develop impressively large fronds of bright green foliage. When they first emerge in spring, their iconic fiddleheads are probably some of the most photographed plants in the garden. A unique trait of ostrich ferns, like a few other fern families, is that these plants have separate fertile and infertile fronds. The sterile fronds of ostrich ferns are what most people initially think of: large, bright green leaves. They emerge in spring and are held right alongside the previous year's fertile fronds. Come fall, these leaves turn a bright golden color. While the sterile leaves can reach impressive sizes of 3–4 feet tall, the fertile leaves generally reach only about 2 feet tall. The fertile fronds develop later from the centers of the plants and are much smaller and deeper green. Eventually they develop clusters of spores on the backside of the fronds. Even throughout the winter months, the fertile fronds are held perfectly upright. Come spring, the fronds release their spores and eventually die back.
Ostrich Fern Care Must-Knows
Like most ferns, ostrich ferns prefer partial to moist soil. It is best to plant them in rich, organic soil that is somewhat acidic. Keeping them evenly moist to almost wet yields lush growth. Avoid letting this fern dry out, which leads to browning and drying of the foliage. Dry soil also results in slower, smaller growth.
Ostrich ferns prefer shady conditions. These ferns are tougher than most, though, and can tolerate a decent amount of sunlight as long as they do not dry out. The more sun they are in, the more moisture they require. In warmer climates, any more than part sun can also lead to foliage burn and additional water requirements. In general, ostrich ferns prefer cooler climates and struggle in warm southern climates.
In their ideal growing conditions, ostrich ferns can be aggressive spreaders. Keep this in mind when planting, as they can quickly fill a garden space and may outcompete more timid neighbors. Ostrich fern spreads by underground rhizomes and can be controlled by regular division to keep them in check. The best time to divide ostrich ferns is in early spring just as the new growth is beginning to emerge.