Few plants are as delicate yet as durable as our native ostrich fern. The common name refers to the foliage, or fronds, which resemble ostrich feathers. The fronds are upright, reaching 3 feet or more before gently arching over at the tips. They have an airy quality and move gracefully in the breeze. The ostrich fern is easy to grow, and deer tend to leave it alone. In nature, it grows in dappled shade on the forest edge or in moist soil near water, so when using in a garden scheme, look for a site with damp shade. Planting among shrubs or against a fence or wall protects the fronds from wind damage. As long as the soil is kept moist, this fern can handle more sun in cool climates, but in the South, it requires more shade. In rich soil with adequate moisture, ostrich fern grows and spreads by underground runners, a self-expanding groundcover.
Ostrich ferns make a pleasing backdrop for other shade-loving perennials such as woodland phlox (Phlox), bleeding heart (Dicentra), plantain lily (Hosta), and columbine (Aquilegia). They are the perfect complement to a vase of fresh-cut flowers.
Among ferns, this one is relatively easy to propagate from spores, but since it can take months before a plant is big enough to go into the garden, nursery-grown containers yield quicker results. Autumn is a good time to plant ostrich ferns: Fall planting means less work watering, because the ferns will be able to take advantage of more frequent rainfall and cooler temperatures.
The emerging foliage of a fern is called a fiddlehead. For a short time in spring, the fiddleheads of the ostrich fern are edible. The flavor is nutty and earthy, a bit like broccoli rabe or asparagus. Not all fiddlehead ferns are edible, so look for a U-shaped groove on the inside of the stem and a thin, brown, papery coating to identify the edible sort. Pick just a few per plant while still small and tightly furled; they turn bitter as they mature. Before cooking, wash lightly and gently rub off the papery coating. Fiddleheads can be steamed or boiled, and are delicious sautéed in olive oil with garlic or bacon.