How to Plant and Grow Japanese Painted Fern

This perennial accents the other plants in your shade garden with unique silver-toned leaves.

Ferns are among 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. Japanese painted ferns are among the best silver-leaved plants for your garden and in a world of greens, they offer unique color and intricate texture.

The fronds of Japanese painted ferns have such distinctive patterns of color that they almost look hand-painted (thus the name). With shades of steely gray, frosty white, and deep burgundy, every frond is a piece of art to be admired.

Each feathery frond's rachis, or midrib, is typically a lovely burgundy color that transitions to smaller, gray-green leaflets of silver-white as they progress to the tips. The Japanese painted fern’s beauty is a perfect accent for other garden plants—whether it acts as a stand-alone star or as a soft complement to bold colors and textures in the garden.

Japanese Painted Fern Overview

Genus Name Athyrium
Common Name Japanese Painted Fern
Plant Type Perennial
Light Part Sun, Shade
Height 1 to 3 feet
Width 1 to 2 feet
Foliage Color Gray/Silver, Purple/Burgundy
Season Features Colorful Fall Foliage
Special Features Good for Containers, Low Maintenance
Zones 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
Propagation Division
Problem Solvers Deer Resistant, Groundcover

Where to Plant Japanese Painted Fern

Japanese painted ferns are hardy in zones 4 through 9. They are often planted in woodland gardens, near ponds and streams, along walkways, and in shaded patio gardens. For the greatest effect, plant them in groups to really magnify the beauty these ferns have to offer.

Japanese painted ferns like partial to full shade and could benefit from being planted in areas where they have protection from the harsh afternoon sun and excess rain. Choose an area with well-draining soil that is mildly acidic to neutral.

How and When to Plant Japanese Painted Fern

You can plant nursery-grown Japanese painted ferns in the spring or fall. If you are amending your soil with compost or organic material, plan to do so at least 2 weeks before planting so the microorganisms in the soil have time to reestablish themselves.

When you are ready, dig a hole that is at least twice the width of the plant’s root ball and as deep as the growing container. Carefully remove the plant from the container and place it in the hole pressing down the soil as you fill in the hole. If you are planting more than one fern, be sure to give each plant about 24 inches of space. Water thoroughly and keep the soil evenly moist throughout the growing season. 

Japanese Painted Fern Care Tips

Most ferns can be more temperamental than your average garden perennial. Japanese painted ferns are relatively slow growing, so there's little risk of them becoming too aggressive and choking out neighboring plants.


The most important thing to remember about Japanese painted ferns is that they can't tolerate full sun. Particularly in the harsh afternoon light, the delicate leaves can scorch, ruining their beauty. Japanese painted ferns can tolerate partial sun, but it's best to place them in an area where they will only get exposure to the morning sun (when there's less risk of damage from the afternoon sun and heat). Japanese painted ferns can also do well in full shade—just expect the colors to be a bit more muted, though no less beautiful.

Soil and Water

Japanese painted ferns can also be fussy about soil conditions. For this type of fern, the ideal is rich, well-draining soil with lots of organic matter. A slightly acidic to neutral soil (5.5 to 7.0) is preferred and adding compost to the soil before planting can help the plant thrive.

As they grow, Japanese painted ferns will want consistently moist, but not wet conditions. Once established, Japanese painted ferns can become drought-tolerant, but dry conditions are likely to cause stunted growth and lackluster fronds. Check the soil frequently and water when the top layers feel dry to the touch. Keep your ferns evenly moist for the most vigorous growth. During warm weather, your ferns may want more water than they do in the fall and winter months.

Temperature and Humidity

Japanese painted ferns thrive for most of the year in moderate temperatures that remain between 55 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, but they can also survive in temperatures as low as -30 degrees. Unlike some tropical ferns, Japanese painted ferns actually benefit from a winter dormancy period. If you live in an area with fall and winter frosts, your fern will die back and reemerge in the spring.

They also love fairly humid conditions and will be happy at a humidity level between 40 and 60 percent as long as the soil does not get soggy (which can cause rot).


If you are working organic amendments into your soil before planting your Japanese painted fern, additional fertilizer should not be required. If you would like to add some, use a single feeding of a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10) in the spring.


Pruning is not required for the Japanese painted fern to thrive, but you can remove dead or diseased fronds in the spring or occasionally throughout the growing season if you like.

Potting and Repotting

Japanese painted ferns can be grown in containers if you choose a pot that is large enough to accommodate its growth. A large, freeze-resistant pot (think: concrete, fiberglass, metal, or stone) that is at least 12 inches in diameter and 12 inches deep is recommended. Fill the container with a well-draining potting mix that is high in organic matter, place the fern in the center, and gently tamp down the soil. Place your potted fern on a shaded patio or an area of your yard that is well-protected from rain and afternoon sun.

You will not need to bring your potted Japanese painted fern indoors for the winter as the plant is adapted to cold weather and benefits from winter dormancy. You can, however, dig a hole and place the entire pot in the ground for the winter (where the soil will provide insulation) or surround the pot with straw or leaves to keep it protected. Do not cover the fern as it could rot from the excess moisture.

If growing indoors, place your potted Japanese painted fern in an area with a little indirect dappled light. Since Japanese painted ferns prefer cool, humid temperatures, typical indoor climates may be too warm and dry for them to thrive—particularly in the summer. You can temper this by using a humidifier and a fan that will increase air circulation and provide a light breeze. It’s also a good idea to place your fern on a wet pebble tray so the evaporating moisture can reach the plant’s foliage.

Container-grown Japanese painted ferns are slow-growing but can grow root-bound over time, which stunts their growth. If it looks like your fern is struggling in its container, you can repot it to a larger container (at least 2 inches larger) in the spring or divide it to keep it from outgrowing its pot. 

Pests and Problems

Ferns make excellent garden plants because they have very few problems and—aside from the occasional snail or slug—they don’t attract many pests. If you want to take preventive measures against snails and slugs, add some crushed eggshells to the soil around the base of your fern to deter them from approaching. Rabbits are quite fond of ferns and might munch on the fronds, but deer aren’t likely to be a problem.

The most common issues Japanese painted ferns face are fungal diseases and rot. These issues usually occur because of excess watering or poorly draining soil.

How to Propagate Japanese Painted Fern

Propagation of Japanese painted ferns is best done via division. When grown in favorable conditions, Japanese-painted ferns can self-spread through rhizomes, but they are unlikely to spread quickly enough to fill out a garden bed—let alone be considered invasive. When your Japanese painted fern reaches maturity, you can manage its growth (or spread it around) by digging
it up and dividing
it in the spring.

To divide your mature Japanese painted fern, dig around the plant and carefully lift the root ball out of the soil. Shake loose the excess soil and divide the root system into three or four sections using sharp gardening shears. Make sure that each section contains a reasonable amount of roots, rhizomes, and fronds. Plant individual sections in pots or in the ground about 24 inches apart and water them thoroughly.

Types of Japanese Painted Fern

Lady in Red lady fern

Lady in Red
Clint Farlinger

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

Branford Beauty fern

Branford Beauty fern
Clint Farlinger

Athyrium 'Branford Beauty' is a plant with stunning upright silvery fronds with red stems. Zones 5-8

Crested Japanese painted fern

Applecourt fern
Clint Farlinger

Athyrium niponicum 'Applecourt' bears textural, crested fronds marked with silver and burgundy. Zones 5-8

Japanese painted fern

athyrium japonicum pictum
Denny Schrock

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

Painted lady fern

Ghost painted lady fern
Clint Farlinger

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

Silver Falls Japanesse painted fern

Silver Falls silver painted fern
Clint Farlinger

Athyrium niponicum 'Silver Falls' has pinkish red stems and reddish purple veins. It's most colorful when it gets a few hours of sun per day. Zones 5-8

Tatting fern

Frizelliae tatting fern
Clint Farlinger

Athyrium filix-femina 'Frizelliae' is a dwarf, 1-foot-tall plant with rounded ball-like leaflets attached to the main stem, resembling a lacy string of beads. It is a type of lady fern. Zones 4-8

Companion Plants for Japanese Painted Fern

Lady's Mantle

Yellow Alchemilla Close
Matthew Benson

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.


Lungwort Pulmonaria Benediction
David McDonald

In early spring, lungwort's brilliant blue, pink, or white flowers bloom despite the coldest chill. The rough basal leaves, spotted or plain, continue to be handsome into winter. Lungworts are workhorses planted close as a weed-discouraging groundcover or in borders like edgings or colorful accent plants. Provide high-humus soil that retains moisture. Although lungworts tolerate dry conditions, be alert for mildew.


Justin Hancock

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. The leaves are often colored with shades of purple, white, silver, cream, or pink. Individual plants grow as a rosette but intertwine to form a solid carpet that withstands some foot traffic. Blue, lavender, pink, or white flower spikes adorn plants from spring to early summer. Ajuga works in rock gardens, at the front of beds and borders, under leggy shrubs or small trees, along paths, or in other places in your landscaping.

Garden Plans for Japanese Painted Fern

Perennial Shade Garden

Shade Garden

This plan, filled with low-maintenance plants, brings color to the shady spots of your garden where growing is sometimes difficult—like under the canopy of a mature tree. It features a mix of colorful plants such as astilbe, pink turtlehead, and corydalis, that will provide a sequence of blooms from spring through fall.

Bold Shade Garden

bold shade garden plan illustration

You won’t need a lot of sunshine to create this shade garden plan with an eye-catching display of blue, green, and purple. The addition of Japanese painted ferns brings wispy softness to the garden bed’s layered look.

No-Fuss Shade Garden Plan

no-fuss shade garden plan illustration
Illustration by Gary Palmer

Build this easy-care garden plan from the back forward to create a lush bed of blooms and foliage to showcase a large tree. The first layer includes elegant bleeding hearts and hosta followed by hellebores and foamy bells. Astilbes and Japanese painted ferns comprise the lowest level adding
delicate texture, while deadnettle and barrenwort spill over the edge.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are Japanese painted ferns toxic to pets?

    Japanese painted ferns are not considered toxic to pets.

  • Do Japanese painted ferns crowd out other plants?

    The Japanese painted fern is unlikely to cause issues for neighboring plants unless they are planted too close. Since the slow-growing fern only gains approximately 12 inches each year and may take several years to reach full size, the threat of it overtaking a garden bed is minimal. If unexpected and unwanted sporelings pop up, remove them before they have a chance to get deeply rooted.

  • How long do Japanese painted ferns live?

    When well-cared for and grown in favorable conditions, a Japanese painted fern can live approximately 10 to 15 years.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles