Athyrium filix-femina ‘Victoriae’
Photo by Richard Hawke

Lady ferns and Japanese painted ferns (Athyrium spp.) are among the most elegant yet utilitarian plants for the shade garden. Their lacy fronds arch and twist in a graceful manner, being both structural and ethereal at the same time. Ferns stand on their foliar merits alone, having no flowers to overshadow their feathery foliage. The lush green fronds of lady ferns are in marked contrast to the sage green, silver, and burgundy tones of the colorful Japanese painted ferns. The delicate quality of their fronds belies their stoutness—they are durable and hardy garden plants that can be broadly cultivated successfully throughout North America.

Lady ferns (Athyrium filix-femina, A. otophorum, and A. vidalii) and Japanese painted fern (A. niponicum var. pictum) are members of the wood fern family and just a few of the nearly 200 species native to temperate and tropical regions worldwide. The common lady fern (A. filix-femina) is found in moist woodlands, meadows, and ravines throughout North America, Europe, and Asia, and is represented in gardens by a plethora of cultivars—many of the oldest forms originated in England during the Victorian era. Eared lady fern (A. otophorum) and Japanese lady fern (A. vidalii) are woodland natives in Japan, Korea, and China. Likewise, Japanese painted fern is native to moist shady sites in Japan, China, and Korea. A. niponicum features green foliage, whereas the naturally occurring variant pictum offers up grayish-green fronds with purple midribs. In the past decade, the popularity of Japanese painted ferns has spawned an array of new colorful cultivars as well as a few exceptional hybrids with the common lady fern.

Athyrium ‘Branford Beauty’ has an upright habit and fine textured leaves resembling the lady fern, while the colorful arching and curved fronds are more like Japanese painted fern.
Photo by Jessie Stevens

Japanese painted fern cultivars and hybrids are widely grown and popular garden plants, so much so that A. niponicum var. pictum was the Perennial Plant of the Year in 2004. They are exceptional as accents or massed in shade gardens, woodlands, and near streams and ponds. And they work wonderfully in container plantings. Japanese painted ferns combine beautifully with bold-leaved perennials such as hostas, hellebores, toad lilies, and ligularias. Their silvery and purple foliage pairs sublimely with the silver heart-shaped leaves of ‘Jack Frost’ and ‘Silver Heart’ buglosses (Brunnera macrophylla) or with a variety of purple-leaved coral bells (Heuchera spp.). Lady ferns can be used similarly in shady gardens, either singly or planted in drifts. Their elegant vertical form and lacy texture are equally well-paired with bolder leaves. Japanese painted ferns and lady ferns are listed for USDA Hardiness Zones 5-8, and possibly colder.

The evaluation study

The Chicago Botanic Garden (USDA Hardiness Zone 5b) evaluated 26 taxa of Athyrium from 2002 to 2014. The comparative study included Deparia acrostichoides, which was received as A. thelypteroides, the previous name for this taxon. Each taxon was evaluated for a minimum of four years but due to the protracted trial period, many were grown for up to 12 years. The goal of the project was to identify outstanding lady ferns and Japanese painted ferns for upper Midwestern gardens. Download the entire report with in-depth charts at http://bit.ly/CBG_Fern_Evaluation.

The performance report

A. ‘Ghost’ combines the habit of a lady fern, and the colors of a Japanese painted fern.
Photo by Richard Hawke

The trial began in the spring of 2002 with the planting of Athyrium niponicum var. pictum and seven cultivars and hybrids including ‘Branford Beauty,’ ‘Branford Rambler,’ ‘Ghost,’ ‘Pictum Red,’ ‘Silver Falls,’ ‘Ursula’s Red,’ and ‘Wildwood Twist.’ An additional 18 taxa were added to the trials in subsequent years up to 2008. All plants were evaluated for their cultural adaptability to the soil and environmental conditions of the test site; disease and pest problems; winter hardiness or survivability; and ornamental qualities associated with foliage and plant habit. Final performance ratings are based on foliage and habit quality, plant health and cultural adaptability, and winter hardiness.

The majority of taxa in the trial received a five-star excellent rating or a four-star good rating for their overall performance. Top-rated plants displayed consistently attractive foliage, robust habits throughout each growing season, and winter hardiness during the evaluation term.

The five-star plants included Athyrium ‘Branford Beauty,’ A. ‘Branford Rambler,’ A. ‘Ghost,’ A. filix-femina ‘Encourage,’ A. filix-femina ‘Victoriae,’ A. filix-femina ssp. cyclosorum, A. niponicum var. pictum ‘Apple Court,’ A. niponicum var. pictum ‘Pewter Lace,’ A. niponicum var. pictum ‘Regal Red,’ and Deparia acrostichoides.

Only five taxa, A. filix-femina ‘Plumosum Axminster,’ A. filix-femina ‘Vernoniae Cristatum,’ A. niponicum var. pictum ‘Soul Mate,’ A. otophorum, and A. vidalii received lower ratings for various reasons such as heat- and drought-stressed foliage, winter losses, and/or weak growth. The ferns were generally adapted to the soil and environment of the test site, as long as their cultural needs were met. Droughty conditions occurred in most years of the trial, resulting in wilted foliage, leaf scorch, and/or foliar desiccation on many taxa. In general, the lady ferns and Japanese painted ferns exhibited superior foliage quality and habit traits. With few exceptions, plants formed robust clumping or rhizomatous habits in the second or third year. Foliar quality remained exceptional as long as plants received adequate soil moisture and appropriate light levels. Cultural and pest issues such as leaf scorching, wilting, and rabbit browsing affected ornamental displays at various times during the trial period.

A. filix-femina ‘Encourage,’ one of the top performers in the trial, features pinnae tasseled or crested at the tips, giving the light green fronds a frilly look.
Photo by Richard Hawke

The deficiencies of the trial garden aside, the majority of Japanese painted ferns and lady ferns were grown successfully over the course of a long period. Beyond determining cultural adaptability to the growing conditions of the trial site, another of the study’s goals was to ascertain the similarities between the named selections of Japanese painted fern. The uniqueness of each Japanese painted fern cultivar was often indiscernible at a glance. Planting the cultivars side-by-side helped to distinguish the sometimes subtle foliar differences. Variations in leaf coloration and markings among the three plants of A. niponicum var. pictum were not unexpected as this is not a clonal variety. Although the verification of every cultivar was not definitive, we were comfortable that the foliar and habit traits generally matched literature descriptions.

Japanese painted ferns and lady ferns are elegant plants for shady places. Their feathery fronds provide texture in a variety of colors to contrast and complement other perennials. Providing what they need to grow—moist, well-drained soils in partial to full shade—ensures they stay healthy and ornamental all summer. With few exceptions, these reliable and long-lived ferns are well-suited to a variety of gardens and landscapes.

Richard Hawke is plant evaluation manager at the Chicago Botanic Garden; rhawke@chicagobotanic.org.