Ferns are a dependable – if not electrifying – mainstay of the shade garden. Though up close and personal, fern fronds are amazingly intricate, even exquisite in their detail, many gardeners find the plants themselves underwhelming. Too green. No flowers. Kind of boring.
But Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum) is the fern world's Auntie Mame; a colorful outlier with gracefully arching silver or sage green leaves that feature vibrant purple-pink stems and rachis (midribs). It has a metallic glint that lights up dark corners of the garden. Who needs flowers?
A type of lady fern, Japanese painted fern is native to China, Japan, and Korea. Its vibe is delicate, but no need for kid gloves: the plant is much tougher than it looks. It is also incredibly easy to grow, asking only that the surrounding soil not be allowed to completely dry out, and is a gradual and courteous spreader.
Japanese painted fern is hardy in USDA Zones 4 to 8. Height and width vary with the variety, ranging from 12 to 30" high and 24 to 36" wide, though most stay under 18". Fronds begin emerging in spring and continue throughout summer. The foliage is deciduous.
How to grow Japanese painted fern
Site: Moist, rich soil is ideal. It must be well drained; plants can't sit in water. When planting multiples, allow 15 to 18" between plants.
Sun: Light to heavy shade, though color is brightest in light shade or with some morning sun. Full or afternoon sun can scorch and dry out the leaves.
Care: If rain is scarce, giving plants a good soaking will keep the fronds from drying out. Mulch to keep the soil moist and cool.
Dividing: Japanese painted fern spreads by rhizomes. It eventually creates a dense carpet of fronds, though it never becomes a nuisance. Dig it up in the spring, slice the crown into smaller sections, each with at least one growing point, and replant.
Pests and diseases: When it comes to insect pests and diseases, Japanese painted fern is trouble free. If you see it flagging, it most likely needs water.
There is a difference of opinion as to rabbit and deer resistance. Some sources claim resistance to both, however a years-long study of the plants by the Chicago Botanic Garden reports some deer browsing and enough rabbit damage to necessitate installing a fence around the test plants.
Uses: In woodland, shade, rock, or Asian-themed gardens. Around ponds, edging shady paths, or as a groundcover. Great in containers.
Ferns and hostas are an unbeatable combination because the leaf shapes, sizes, and textures contrast so pleasingly with one another. Other complementary shade-lovers include foamflower (Tiarella) and coral bells (Heuchera), lungwort (Pulmonaria), bleeding heart (Dicentra), ginger (Asarum), Astilbe, and bugloss (Brunnera).
Varieties: 'Ghost', 'Silver Falls', 'Ursula's Red', 'Burgundy Lace', 'Wildwood Twist', 'Silver Slippers'. Some varieties have fronds that are more silver- or pewter-colored, others are sage green. Some have stems that are purple or burgundy. The overall differences are subtle. Athyrium niponicum 'Pictum' was the Perennial Plant Association's 2004 Plant of the Year.
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