Japanese Painted Fern
Ferns are one of the first things that cross people’s minds when they think of a shade garden, and you would be hard-pressed to find a fern more beautiful than the Japanese painted fern. A beautiful addition to any shade garden, Japanese painted ferns offer unique and intricate texture and color in a world of greens. These ferns have a much finer texture than many other hardy ferns. For the greatest effect, plant them in groups to really magnify the beauty these ferns have to offer.
Unlike other ferns, Japanese painted ferns are not a simple green texture. They are one of the best silver-leaved plants for your garden. Many ferns offer great texture to a space, but few can say they bring as much to the table as Japanese painted ferns. The fronds of these leaves have such interesting and unique patterns of colors that many look hand-painted. In shades of steely gray, frosty white, and deep burgundy, every frond is a piece of art to be admired.
The rachis, or midrib, of each of the feathery fronds is typically a lovely burgundy color that bleeds into the smaller, gray-green leaflets that begin to flush silver-white as they progress to the tips. They are truly pieces of natural art and accent other garden plants so well—whether they act as a stand-alone star or as a soft complement to bold colors and textures in the garden.
Japanese Painted Fern Care Must-Knows
As you might guess by their delicate appearance, most ferns can be more temperamental than your average garden perennial. The most important thing to remember is that these ferns cannot tolerate full sun. Particularly in the harsh afternoon light, the delicate leaves can burn and scorch, ruining their beauty. However, because of their colorful nature, Japanese painted ferns can tolerate part sun quite well, and will typically sport the most vibrant colors with some direct sunlight. The best exposure is morning sun, so there is less risk of burning from afternoon sun and heat. They can also do well in full shade—just expect the colors to be a bit more muted but no less beautiful.
Another common association with most ferns is that they need constant moisture. While this is mostly true, once established, Japanese painted ferns can actually be quite drought tolerant. Regardless, it's best to keep these plants evenly moist for the most vigorous growth. Their ideal soil condition is rich in organic matter and well draining.
One reason ferns make great garden plants is because they typically have very few problems. Japanese painted ferns are fairly slow-growing, so there is little risk of them becoming too aggressive and choking out neighboring plants. In ideal conditions, they can form nice large clumps and can be considered groundcovers. Over the years, you can dig up and divide your Japanese painted ferns to help continue to spread them around. If they are extremely happy plants, you may even see some sporelings pop up.
More Varieties of Japanese Painted Fern
Athyrium filix-femina 'Lady in Red' has distinctive red stems. Compared to most other ferns, it is relatively tolerant of dry soil. Zones 4-9
Athyrium 'Branford Beauty' is a plant with stunning upright silvery fronds with red stems. Zones 5-8
Athyrium niponicum 'Applecourt' bears textural, crested fronds marked with silver and burgundy. Zones 5-8
Athyrium niponicum pictum is one of the best-known ferns. Its silvery fronds tinged with burgundy make an elegant container or garden accent. Zones 5-8
Athyrium 'Ghost' has silvery white fronds and an upright growth pattern. Plants reach 2 feet tall and produce new fronds all summer long. Zones 4-8
Athyrium niponicum 'Silver Falls' has pinkish red stems and reddish purple veins. It is most colorful when it gets a few hours of sun per day. Zones 5-8
Japanese Painted Fern Companion Plants
Lady's mantle looks great in the garden and in a vase. Its scalloped leaves catch rain or dewdrops, making them look dusted with jewels. The chartreuse flowers appear in playful, frothy clusters above the foliage. Lady's mantle is ideal for softening the edge of a shaded path or creating a groundcover in dappled shade.
In early spring, the brilliant blue, pink, or white flowers of lungwort bloom despite the coldest chill. The rough basal leaves, spotted or plain, always please and continue to be handsome into winter. Planted close as a weed-discouraging groundcover, or in borders as edgings or bright accent plants, lungworts are workhorses with good looks. Provide high-humus soil that retains moisture. Although lungworts tolerate dry conditions, be alert for mildew.
Ajuga is one of the most indispensable groundcovers around. It has many uses and looks great much of the year. Also known as carpetweed or bugleweed, ajuga forms a 6-inch-tall mat of glossy leaves that always seem to look neat and fresh. In many cases, the leaves are colored with shades of purple, white, silver, cream, or pink. Individual plants grow as a rosette, but they intertwine to form a solid carpet that withstands some foot traffic. Blue, lavender, pink, or white flower spikes adorn plants spring to early summer. Ajuga is great in rock gardens, at the front of beds and borders, under leggy shrubs or small trees, along paths, and just about any other place in the landscape you want to cover the ground with attractive foliage and little flowers.