Japanese painted fern: 2004 perennial plant of the year

The Perennial Plant of the Year winner for 2004 is the lovely Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’).

An attractive low-maintenance shade garden plant, this fern is also very showy. The leaves are a soft shade of metallic silver-gray with hints of red and blue.

How to grow Japanese painted fern

Japanese painted fern

Japanese painted fern

This fern thrives in part to full shade where moisture and humidity are plentiful and the soil is compost-rich and woodsy.

Hardy in USDA Zones 3 to 8, Japanese painted fern grows about 18 inches tall and makes a clump more than two feet wide.

To keep the soil rich and fertile, mulch planting bed with 2 or 3 inches of compost or leaf mould each spring or fall. The fronds show their best color in light shade. The plant will tolerate a small amount of morning sun in southern gardens; in northern gardens it can take more morning sun without leaf scorch.

What to plant with Japanese Painted Fern

Japanese painted fern makes for an interesting textural contrast when combined with other shade-tolerant perennials. Attractive companions are bleeding heart, columbine, Lamium, Astilbe, Hosta and coral-bells.

This fern also combines beautifully with:

  • White variegated hosta varieties, such as ‘Patriot’ and ‘Ginko Craig’
  • Foam flower (Tiarella) species and cultivars
  • Shade-tolerant ornamental grasses, such as the variegated sedge Carex morrowii ‘Variegata’, or Japanese Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’)
  • Heart-leafed brunnera cultivars (Brunnera macrophylla ‘Langtrees’, ‘Silver Wings’, or ‘Jack Frost’)
  • White flowered Astilbe ‘Snowdrift’ or pink Astilbe simplicifolia ‘Sprite’