A NY FLOWER WOULD BE HARD-PRESSED TO COMPETE with the two most colorful ferns in the garden here, which have been showing off since the first crozier poked through the soil surface in early May and won’t stop till very late fall. No wonder I grow so many Japanese painted ferns and autumn ferns; they make shade gardening look easy, adding heavy doses of purple and silver or coral and gold, respectively, and never asking for so much as a deadheading in return.
Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’, Zones 5-8) is well-known to most gardeners the last decade, a showy thing with varying proportions and intensities of silvery-gray and purple coloration on its parts. Depending on your conditions and what it says on the label of the selection you buy, the painted fern will be a foot to 18 inches high and two or three times that wide. They poke through the soil purple, like their midribs (detail, above), and I love every minute of their annual show.
Speaking of labels: I read them, sure, but most of all what I look at in the garden center is the individual plant and how well it displays the promised characteristics. I bought my best painted ferns (long before there were named selections like ‘Ursula’s Red’) just by eye, taking the best ones off the nursery bench, and each time I divide them I am guaranteed more of the precise genetic material of the parent plants. (My best ones aren’t in the area captured in these photos, but in the underplantings by my oldest magnolia, as you may recall.)
The autumn fern (or autumn shield fern, Zones 5-8 or 9), another Japanese species (Dryopteris erythrosora), was always a very good plant, with bronzy coloring in spring and a lustrous surface to the foliage. In recent years the selection process to emphasize more of its best traits has resulted in a named form called ‘Brilliance,’ which is just that. Very good got great. It is arching and reaches 18 to 24 inches high and wide here, in moist shade; once established, it is said to tolerate dry conditions, but I have not asked that of it.
From the first sign of the autumn fern’s crozier each spring the story is warm coral-like colors, and gradually by summer the show subsides to a nice shiny bronzy-green.
The two together seem to me to make a whole shade garden, with little else required. What do you think?