The 2004 Perennial Plant of the Year is Japanese Painted Fern or Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’. I can just hear you saying, “What?” We’re talking about the perennial, low-maintenance Japanese Painted Fern, one of the showiest ferns for just about every garden.
This is one hardy plant, unless you live in the deserts of Arizona or somewhere north of North Bay in frigid USDA zone 3.
This fern – let’s call it ‘Pictum’ from now on grows around twelve to eighteen inches tall and slowly multiplies to form a large clump twenty four inches across. The fronds are approximately eighteen inches long and are a soft-grey metallic colour with hints of red and blue. The centre stem is red so the contrast is excellent.
It is a lovely plant, preferring partial shade rather than deep shade; I grew mine under the soft shade of an old crabapple tree.
The Japanese Painted Fern does not appreciate drying out however as I’ve discovered more than once in droughty years, when dry conditions prevail, it loses its leaf luster and droops badly.
In one particularly dry year, it disappeared completely in mid summer but it did shoot up again the following spring. So do plan on watering it to help it hold its wonderful colour.
If you have to give it sun, give it morning sun because the afternoon sun is too intense and will bleach out the colours.
Plan on making the soil quite organic by adding several inches of compost to the planting hole or mulch with equal amounts of compost each spring. You could also add several inches of peat moss to the planting hole as this plant appreciates a bit of acidity. If grown in a good soil, it will hold its colouring all summer long, from the earliest spring fronds right through until a good hard frost knocks it to the ground.
The Japanese painted fern is native to Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan and once you see it unfurling its metallic grey frond in early spring, you’ll be a convert and want a bit of the oriental influence in your garden.
Japanese painted fern and gold-leaf hosta
For a wonderful combination, all three of these plants make excellent container plants. If you like the blue Hosta, try planting H. sieboldiana ‘Elegans’ with this fern. And if you want a different and more modern look, try combining some of the shade loving sedges with the Japanese fern.
Carex morrowii ‘variegata’ and the new Carex ‘Lemon Zest’ would be excellent choices for contrast and shade garden or container use. I have not tried Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ with this plant but the silver tones of the Brunnera should compare quite nicely with the silver tones in the fern. There are other shade garden perennial flowers here for you to consider.
Athyrium ‘Wildwood Twist’ Image courtesy Terra Nova Nurseries
This fern colouring lends itself to being an excellent contrast plant to other shade perennials. Try growing it with Hosta (I particularly liked the combinations of gold leafed Hosta with this plant), bleeding hearts, columbines, astilbe and heuchera. One combination that has been recommended is Japanese painted fern with Hosta ‘Patriot’ and ‘Ginko Craig’.
Athyrium ‘Ursula’s Red’ Image courtesy Terra Nova Nurseries
While most of the plants you’ll see in garden centres are tissue cultured, this plant is fairly easy to divide if done in the early spring. Wait until you have a good sized clump and dig it out of the ground. You will be able to split each clump into three or four equally sized divisions.
Replant immediately after dividing and add compost to the planting area. I used to use a shovel to divide mine but any sharp tool will do equally well. Do not worry too much over whether the cuts are equal, as long as the division is done in the early spring before major growth has started for the year, and there are roots and crowns (growing points) on each of the divisions, your plant will survive and prosper.
Varieties to Search For
There are several new varieties of Japanese painted fern that you might want to search for at your favourite garden centre. ‘Pewter Lace’ has metallic pewter to mint-green fronds (two toned) with red stems and extremely lacy foliage. I saw this plant last year and I can tell you it will wind up in one of my garden containers this spring to fill a contrast plant role.
The second new introduction is ‘Ursula’s Red’ and this variety has large silver leaves but the centre of each leaf is flushed with wine-red colour in the spring. I haven’t seen this one yet but I have hopes of finding it this spring as well.
When you add ‘Pictum’ to the garden mix, you have an difficult choice to make as to which to grow.
Naturally, I’m not going to make that choice. I am planning on growing every one I can lay my hands on. 🙂