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Ostrich Fern

Scientific Name(s): Matteuccia struthiopteris (L.) Tod.
Common Name(s): Fiddlehead fern, Ostrich fern, Shuttlecock fern, Wood fern

Clinical Overview


Studies regarding the therapeutic applications of ostrich fern are limited. A small number of animal and in vitro studies have examined the fern's potential as an antioxidant, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory agent.


No clinical evidence exists to support a specific dosage of ostrich fern.


Contraindications have not been identified.


Avoid use. Information regarding safety and efficacy in pregnancy and lactation is lacking.


None well documented.

Adverse Reactions

Adverse effects caused by ingestion of undercooked ostrich fern fiddleheads have included nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramping.


No data.


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

Antimicrobial effect

Animal data

No animal data exist regarding the use of ostrich fern for antimicrobial effects.

Clinical data

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


Animal data

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

Clinical data

No clinical data exist regarding the use of ostrich fern for anti-inflammatory effects.


Animal data

No animal data exist regarding the use of ostrich fern in cancer.

Clinical data

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

Other uses

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.

Adverse Reactions

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.


1. Matteuccia struthiopteris (L.) Todaro [ostrich fern]. USDA, NRCS. The PLANTS Database (, 18 January 2016). National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA. Accessed February 22, 2016.
2. Wagstaff DJ. International Poisonous Plants Checklist: An Evidence-Based Reference. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2008.
3. von Aderkas P. Economic history of ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, the edible fiddlehead. Econ Bot. 1984;38(1):14-23.
4. Miyazawa M, Horiuchi E, Kawata J. Components of the essential oil from Matteuccia struthiopteris. J Oleo Sci. 2007;56(9):457-461.17898513
5. Li B, Ni Y, Zhu LJ, et al. Flavonoids from Matteuccia struthiopteris and their anti-influenza virus (H1N1) activity. J Nat Prod. 2015;78(5):987-995.25927664
6. Zhang D, Yang L, Fu MH, Tu YY. Studies on chemical constituents of rhizome of Matteuccia struthiopteris [in Chinese]. Zhongguo Zhong Yao Za Zhi. 2008;33(14):1703-1705.18841771
7. Li S, Zhang D, Yang L, Li Y, Zhu X, Kmonickova E. HPLC quantitative analysis of main stilbenes and flavones in different parts of Matteuccia struthiopteris. J Chem. 2013:1-6.10.1155/2013/452610
8. de Long JM, Mark Hodges D, Prange RK, et al. The unique fatty acid and antioxidant composition of ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) fiddleheads. Can J Plant Sci. 2011;91(5):919-930.
9. Burns LV, Parker GH. Metal burdens in two species of fiddleheads growing near the ore smelters at Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. Bull Environ Contam Toxicol. 1988;40(5):717-723.3382788
10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Ostrich fern poisoning--New York and Western Canada, 1994. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 1994;43(37):677,683-684.8078456
11. Wang Z, Xie JY, Xu H, et al. Effect of Matteuccia struthiopteris polysaccharides on systemic lupus erythematosus-like syndrome induced by Campylobacter jejuni in BALB/c mice [in Chinese]. Yao Xue Xue Bao. 2010;45(6):711-717.20939178
12. Dion C, Haug C, Guan H, et al. Evaluation of the anti-inflammatory and antioxidative potential of four fern species from China intended for use as food supplements. Nat Prod Comm. 2015;10(4):597-603.25973486
13. Hata K, Ishikawa K, Hori K. Differentiation-inducing activities of human leukemia cell line (HL60) by extracts of edible wild plants in akita. Nat Med. 1998;52(3):269-272.
14. DeLong JM, Hodges DM, Prange RK, et al. The influence of cold water storage on fatty acids, antioxidant content and activity, and microbial load in ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) fiddleheads. Can J Plant Sci. 2013;93(4):683-697.
15. Takahashi J, Toshima G, Matsumoto Y, et al. In vitro screening for antihyperlipidemic activities in foodstuffs by evaluating lipoprotein profiles secreted from human hepatoma cells. J Nat Med. 2011;65(3-4):670-674.21562909
16. From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ostrich fern poisoning--New York and western Canada, 1994. JAMA. 1995;273(12):912-913.7884940


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