Japanese Painted Ferns

Written by Helen Glenn Court
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Named the perennial plant of the year for 2004, the Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum 'Pictum') grows almost everywhere in the United States. Hardy and low-maintenance, it enjoys well-drained soil and shady conditions. Its metallic pale gray fronds grow between 12 and 18 inches long and show their best color in dappled sunlight.

A number of other shade lovers combine especially well with Japanese ferns. Among the obvious are hosta, astilbe, and columbine. Among the less obvious, perhaps, are the foam flower (Tirarella) and the sedges (Carex). A cousin of the Forget-Me-Not, the Siberian bugoss (Brunnera macrophylla), with its heart-shaped leaves and airy blue flowers on tall stems, is another candidate.

Imagine a garden retreat in the shade of either tall or ornamental trees. Perhaps you'd have a hammock, a wooden bench, a rock garden softened by ferns, or a slate-edged pond. The breeze filters through the quiet greenery. Sunlight filters through the leaves and falls onto the variegated leaves of ornamental grasses and the color of bleeding heart and Orchid Frost. The Japanese painted fern is ideal in this environment.

Tips for Growing

In the best of all worlds, Japanese painted ferns will have humidity, plenty of ground moisture, and organically rich soil. Adding several inches of peat moss or compost each year helps ensure healthy growth. If you choose to fertilize, do so at about half strength of the typical perennial demand. Propagation of this clump-growth fern is a matter of simple division. A mature plant might be divided into thirds or quarters, but no more than that. The cool temperatures and limited sun of early spring are the best conditions for division.

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