Scientific Name(s): Matteuccia struthiopteris (L.) Tod.
Common Name(s): Fiddlehead fern, Ostrich fern, Shuttlecock fern, Wood fern
The ostrich fern is a common fern that grows in the north eastern United States and throughout Canada. The fern's characteristic long, green, feathery fronds lose their leaflets in the fall, leaving a dormant winter plant. Ostrich ferns grow up to 2 m in height and spread in moist conditions via underground rhizomes. Synonyms for the species include Matteuccia pensylvanica, Pteretis nodulosa, Pteretis pensylvanica, and Onoclea struthiopteris.1, 2
Fiddleheads (the young shoot tops) of the ostrich fern are a seasonal delicacy, harvested commercially throughout the north eastern United States and coastal Canadian provinces. Historically, this spring vegetable became a regular part of the diet of Canadian settlers by the early 1700s.3 Both the fronds and shoot tops of the ostrich fern are widely eaten in Japan, and they are also used in traditional Chinese medicine.4, 5 Fiddleheads are available canned, frozen, or fresh. Limited screening studies have been conducted to identify potential therapeutic applications.
Chromatographic studies have analyzed the constituents of ostrich fern,6, 7 which include xanthophyll pigments, essential fatty acids (including linolenic, arachidonic, and eicosapentaenoic acids),8 flavones (demethoxymatteucinol, matteucinol, matteuorien), and stilbenes (pinosylvin, pinosylvin 3-O-beta-D-glucopyranoside, 5-beta-D-glucosyloxy-3-hydroxyl-trans-stilbene-2-carboxylic acid).7, 5 The antioxidant compounds chlorogenic acid and caffeoylhomoserine have also been described.4
An essential oil of ostrich fern has been described as containing at least 100 compounds, notably (E)-phytol, nonanal, and decanal as main compounds, as well as other aromatic aldehyde compounds.4 Ostrich fern has been reported to accumulate some heavy metals;9 however, no evidence of toxicity was found in an evaluation of a limited number of cases by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.10
Uses and Pharmacology
No animal data exist regarding the use of ostrich fern for antimicrobial effects.
No clinical data exist regarding the use of ostrich fern for antimicrobial effects; however, extracted flavonoids showed in vitro activity against the H1N1 influenza virus in one study.5
In one study, M. struthiopteris polysaccharides inhibited production of immunoglobulin in mice with induced systemic lupus erythematosus-like syndrome. Weight loss and spleen swelling were also diminished in the treated group.11 Anti-inflammatory activity has also been noted in in vitro studies.12
No clinical data exist regarding the use of ostrich fern for anti-inflammatory effects.
No animal data exist regarding the use of ostrich fern in cancer.
No clinical data exist regarding the use of ostrich fern in cancer; however, one study of plant extracts demonstrated differentiation-inducing activity against human leukemia cells.13
Antioxidant activity has been studied in chemical assays.8, 14 A screening study of 7 edible plants, including ostrich fern, examined the activity of extracts on triglyceride and cholesterol levels.15
No clinical evidence exists to support a specific dosage of ostrich fern. Because of the potential presence of heat-labile toxin within ostrich fern, the plant should be cooked thoroughly before consumption.10
Pregnancy / Lactation
Avoid use. Information regarding safety and efficacy in pregnancy and lactation is lacking.
None well documented.
The fiddleheads of the ostrich fern are generally considered edible once they have been steamed, and there have been no recent reports of adverse effects. However, in the mid-1990s, several outbreaks of food poisoning in New York and western Canada were associated with the consumption of raw or lightly cooked fiddleheads.10 Symptoms were reported within 12 hours after ingestion, with nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramping being the most commonly reported adverse reactions.10 Because no reports of illness were associated with fiddleheads that had been boiled or steamed for at least 10 minutes, thorough cooking is recommended.16
Information regarding the toxicity of ostrich fern is lacking.
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