Plant of the Month

Plant of the Month

Ferns of a Feather

Ferns have always fascinated me!  They are an ancient plant, dating back to about 360 million years ago (MYA).  What is interesting about this group of plants is that they have continued to evolve and change throughout time, and many genera and species did not appear until around 145 MYA or sooner.   This illustrates the successful ability of ferns as a group to adapt to an ever changing environment – and also suggests that ferns can easily be adapted to your garden!  During my youth, I was initially drawn to Ostrich Fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, for its graceful arching habit, its interesting leaves and the muddy environment that it often inhabits!
As a group, ferns are far different than most plants we connect with on a daily basis.  Unlike their predecessors, the mosses, ferns do have a true vascular system of a phloem and xylem that loosely relates to our arteries and veins respectfully.   However, ferns do not reproduce by seeds, but by spores that arise from modified leaves called sporophylls.  Often sporophylls simply resemble leaves in appearance, but as with Matteuccia, they are occasionally modified and appear as a congested, upright structure.  Ferns also have ‘true’ leaves called trophophyll whose function is purely for photosynthesis.  In fact, it is the shape of the trophophylls that are largely responsible for this ferns name, since they loosely resemble a large ostrich feather!  In addition, the species epithet struthiopteris comes from the ancient Greek Stroutheios for ‘of an ostrich’ and Pteris for fern!  The Genus name is a bit more involved.  In 1753, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) originally named it Osmunda struthiopteris, but it was not until 1862 when the Italian botanist and Director of the Botanical Garden at Palermo, Agostino Todaro (1818-1892) recognized that this was incorrect.  He reclassified the fern under the new name of Matteuccia in honor of Carlo Matteucci (1811-1868), an Italian physicist, who also served as a Senator and the Director of Education of Italy! 
Nomenclature aside, Ostrich Fern is a phenomenal plant for the garden. As noted above, it has a true leaf or trophophyll that is shaped like a giant feather and under favorable growing conditions can reach upwards of 6’ tall in the wild!  In the garden, it typically grows to a more demure 2’ tall and at its widest a modest 6-8”.  Ostrich Ferns spread by rhizomes that are termed ascending rhizomes, since they produce a ‘crown’ that stands 3-4” tall and from which the new fronds develop.  When the fronds first appear, they are called fiddleheads or crosiers, due to their resemblance of a tuning head of a violin or to that of a Bishop’s staff.  When Matteuccia crosiers are 3-4” tall, they can be harvested and stemmed or stir fried for 5-10 minutes before being eaten.  They are not only nutritious, but rather delicious with a taste very similar to asparagus!  It should be pointed out that crosiers of other ferns will make a person ill, so positive identification is crucial!  In mid-summer, the sporophylls appear; they are initially green, but as the fall approaches they turn a dark brown and persist throughout the winter, releasing the spores during winter or early spring.   
In the Garden, Matteuccia must have ample room.  As previously noted, this fern spreads by underground stolons and a single plant can easily colonize a 10x10 location in 15 years!  Plants grow best in light shade and in soils that remain moist throughout the summer.  Soils need not be boggy, but simply well amended with organic matter and optimally near a water source such as a stream, where they also effectively control erosion.  If the soil becomes droughty, the trophophylls will wilt, turn brown and go dormant.  Not an attractive sight and illustrates the importance of proper siting.  However, the plants are actually unaffected and will return the following spring with robust abandon.  In addition, they are hardy to zone 3 and are deer resistant!  Edible, easy to grow and great for texture, I would be surprised if more budding gardeners were not enamored by this plant in their youth!