by Leonard Perry
by Leonard Perry


In extension I serve as an advisor and consultant to the greenhouse and nursery industry, primarily in Vermont but throughout the region and beyond as well.

I give presentations on my research to the industry, and to home groups. In Research, my focus is "herbaceous perennial production systems".

His website is at  Leonards zone of gardening: home with my trials, generally USDA 4a. Campus in Burlington is 5.

October 15, 2017

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 ( 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.

Grown in the proper conditions, this fern should get 12 to 18 inches tall and wide over time (except for a few taller cultivars). 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, purple-leaved or silvery 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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