Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont
Ferns are an underutilized group of perennials in most
landscapes, yet they are generally low maintenance, good for
shade, add fine texture and, in the case of this plant, add
color. The Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var.
pictum) is one of the most popular ferns in recent years.
In fact, it was named a Perennial Plant of the Year by the
Perennial Plant Association-- the national trade association for
the perennial plant industry.
When you see this fern in landscapes you can see why it is so
popular, with its silvery "fronds" (the name for fern leaves)
brightening up shady areas. They are lance-shaped, twice-divided
(“bipinnate”), with wine-red stems. You also can see how it gets
its common name, in addition to being native to Japan and
surrounding countries of Asia. Each frond looks as if it has been
painted in shades of green, silver, and burgundy. Its several
cultivars (variations) of this naturally occurring variety differ
in frond coloration.
A recent trial by Richard Hawke at the Chicago Botanic Gardens
rated over a dozen different painted ferns
(www.chicagobotanic.org/research/staff/hawke). Top rated
selections included ‘Apple Court’ with silvery green to apple
green fronds and purple. 'Pewter Lace' with reddish veins, has a
dull silver similar to pewter. ‘Regal Red’ has silvery green and
purple fronds, only 16 inches tall.
Most other cultivars rated highly in the Chicago trials. 'Silver
Falls' is even more silver than the original fern, has red veins
that contrast nicely, and is named after a waterfall in Oregon.
'Ursula's Red' is named after a gardener from South Carolina,
Ursula Herz. It begins spring with a wine red tint over a silver
background. Fronds are a smoky gray and green in 'Wildwood Twist'
and, as its name implies, the fronds are slightly twisted.
Then there are several popular and highly rated hybrids of the
Japanese painted fern and closely related lady fern species.
‘Ghost’ has silvery green and purple fronds to 30 inches tall, and
‘Branford Beauty’ is similar only with lighter silvery fronds and
to 18 inches tall. ‘Branford Rambler” with its bright green and
purple fronds, to 25 inches tall, is aptly name as it spreads.
Whatever versions of the painted fern you find, they’re easy to
grow if sited properly. Plant them in a moist and well-drained
soil, preferably rich in compost. They need low fertility, such
as an organic source, or half the rate of that you might feed
other perennials. If heavy rains beat down the fronds, they should
recover in a day or so.
The best frond colors appear in light shade such as morning sun
in the north. Cooler summer temperatures in the north also help
to bring out better colors. This fern is hardy to at least USDA
zone 4 (most of Vermont), and some parts of zone 3, especially if
reliable snow cover.
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