University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Anytime Article


Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
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 'Pictum') is one of the most popular ferns in recent years.  In fact, it has been named the Perennial Plant of the Year for 2004 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.  You can also 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. Stems are wine-red.  Sometimes you may see this fern listed as a variety, its several variations or cultivars varying in frond coloration.

Several of the painted fern cultivars have arisen out of tissue culture selection programs.  'Burgundy Lace' is silvery with heavy burgundy coloration.  'Pewter Lace' has reddish veins, but is a dull silver, similar to pewter.  'Samurai Sword' is similar to the original painted fern, only with a darker burgundy stem.

'Silver Falls' is even more silver than the original fern, has red veins that contrast nicely, and is named after a waterfall in Oregon.  'Soul Mate' is unusual in that the frond tips are crested, that is they flare out into a fan shape.  '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.

Whatever versions of the painted fern you find, 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.

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.

Grown in the proper conditions, this fern should get 12 to 18 inches tall and wide over time.  It provides a nice contrast to other shade perennials such hosta (especially 'Patriot' and 'Ginko Craig') and variegated sedges.  It also combines well with foamflower, astilbe, bleeding heart, coralbells, columbine, Jack Frost brunnera, and Orchid Frost lamium.  Use single plants of the painted fern to add an accent, or a mass to truly "electrify" your shade garden.

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