Gardeners looking to add a bit of excitement to a shady corner of the landscape need to look no further than the Japanese painted fern. Known botanically as Athyrium niponicum, this drama queen boasts silvery sweeps of soft mounded foliage that are almost luminescent. Unlike the typical green fronds of other fern types, this species produces blue-gray foliage with deep burgundy stems. And to make these great garden plants even more noteworthy, they are very hardy and easy to care for. In this article, I’ll share all the ins and outs of growing the Japanese painted fern in outdoor gardens.
One special fern
If I had to make a list of my favorite ferns from the hundreds of species found worldwide, the Japanese painted fern would be in my top five. The Perennial Plant Association even declared it the Perennial Plant of the Year a few years back. The burgundy at the center of each grayish-green frond, combined with its lovely form and frosty foliage, make it a garden accent like no other. I’m sure you can see for yourself why this fern is so unique in the photos found throughout this article.
One thing worth noting about this species of fern is that it does not make a good houseplant. Unlike the many tropical species of ferns we often grow indoors, the Japanese painted fern is a temperate-climate species that needs to pass through a winter dormancy every year. More about this in another section.
Where to grow Japanese painted fern plants
A native of shady woodlands in Asia, this perennial is accustomed to partial shade and full shade where it will thrive with little care. If it receives too much sunlight, the red color on the leaves will fade out. Moist soil conditions are best because this fern does not tolerate dry conditions. Do not choose a well draining site. Reaching a height between 12 and 24 inches with an equal width, the Japanese painted fern makes a great edging plant for along shady walkways and around the base of trees. It also looks wonderful in mixed shade gardens where it lives comfortably with other popular shade-loving perennials such as astilbes, lady ferns, hosta, fern-leaf bleeding hearts, lungworts, and Solomon’s seal.
With a graceful arching growth habit and a lovely spreading form, Japanese painted fern plants lend a softness to the landscape and temper large-leaved shade perennials like hostas. It will tolerate a bit of sun in the morning or in the evening, but strong afternoon sun should be avoided, otherwise the leaves turn crispy and brown in the mid- to late summer. Another symptom of too much sun are leaves that are washed out and near-white instead of a pewter silver (though some varieties do have a naturally light, almost white color regardless of how much sun they receive).
How hardy is this perennial?
Perhaps surprisingly, this fern is very hardy. Don’t let its soft texture fool you! It’s far tougher than it looks. Suitable for USDA hardiness zones 5 to 8, the Japanese painted fern is used to cold winters; it evolved in a part of the world where chilly winter temperatures are the norm. In fact, the painted fern requires a winter dormancy. If you try to grow this plant in a region without a cold winter, the plant will struggle if not outright die. It will survive winter temperatures as low as -20°F. Some sources even declare that certain varieties of Japanese painted fern are hardy down to zone 4 (-30°F)! They easily survive the winters in my zone 5 Pennsylvania garden where winters can often be cold and snowy.
Don’t fret if your fern doesn’t emerge from the soil in early spring. Often Japanese painted ferns are slow to “wake up” and you won’t see the new, burgundy-red fiddleheads uncoiling from the soil until warmer weather arrives. Be patient. They are worth the wait.
Japanese painted fern care
The intricate fronds of Japanese painted ferns might lead you to believe the plant is delicate and requires a lot of care, but that’s definitely not the case. This low-maintenance shade perennial requires very little from you. Site it properly (full shade, please), and plant it in moist soil that’s high in organic matter for the best results (think woodland conditions). If you have no moist soils on your property, be prepared to water it during dry spells or bursts of hot weather.
That being said, you also don’t want to plant Japanese painted ferns in areas that are constantly water-logged, especially in the winter. This can lead to crown rot which will undoubtedly kill the plant. The ideal spot is damp, not wet, with loads of decomposed leaves or another source of organic matter in the soil.
Cut frost-killed fern fronds down in the spring if you wish and divide the plants with a perennial spade every four to five years to keep them from crowding out. If you choose, you can top-dress the planting bed with shredded leaves or finished compost each season to add more organic matter and nutrients to the soil. There is no need to add supplemental fertilizers to areas where Japanese painted ferns are planted, but if you’d like, you can add a sprinkling of a granular organic fertilizer in the area for an extra boost of nutrition. Slugs, snails, and other pests seldom bother this plant.
Varieties of Japanese painted fern
There are many different named varieties and cultivars of this fern, each with subtly different traits that distinguish it from other selections. While the straight species is lovely in its own right, consider trying some of these extra-special varieties.
- Anthyrium niponicum pictum – Among the most common varieties, this is the selection you’re most likely to find at your local garden center. It’s a classic standard.
- A. niponicum ‘Godzilla’- A spectacular choice with big proportions, long fronds, and dark purple mid-ribs. Growing taller than some other selections, ‘Godzilla’ tops out at 3 feet in height.
- A. niponicum ‘Ghost” – This cultivar has a more upright form and a lighter white coloration on the fronds. They grow a bit taller than some other types, reaching a minimum height of 2 feet.
- A. niponicum ‘Crested Surf’ – Unlike other selections, this one has fronds that split (a trait known as “cresting”) into curled tendrils at the tips. It spreads beautifully and has slightly darker foliage than some other selections.
- Other selections include ‘Pewter Lace’, ‘Ursula’s Red’, ‘Silver Falls’, ‘Branford Beauty’, ‘Burgundy Lace’ and ‘Wildwood Twist’.
Growing Japanese painted ferns in pots
In addition to planting this fern in garden beds, you can also grow it in containers. A pot that’s at least 12 inches in diameter and a minimum of 10 to 12 inches deep is best. While the roots of this plant don’t grow deep, they are fibrous, and they spread into a nice-sized clump fairly quickly. Use a high-quality potting soil that’s meant for growing perennials, trees, and shrubs. Ideally, one that contains bark chips or bark fines is best. Add a few cups of finished compost to the soil mix for the best results.
You don’t need to uproot the pot in the wintertime in order for the plant to survive. Instead, sink the entire pot into the compost pile or surround it with a few inches of autumn leaves or straw to provide root insulation for the winter. You can also surround the exterior of the pot with a few layers of bubble wrap for the same purpose. Do not place anything over the top of the fern as this will hold too much moisture against the crown of the plant and could lead to winter rot.
In spring, remove the mulch from around the pot and watch the new fronds break through the soil when the weather warms.
I hope you’ll consider adding the Japanese painted fern to your shady garden beds. You won’t be disappointed in this lovely plant. Here is one source for plants.
For more on shade gardening, please visit the following articles:
- Shade-loving perennial flowers
- Growing hostas in pots
- Blue hosta varieties
- Herbs that grow in shade
- Annual flowers for shade