2 ferns with more lasting color than any flower

japanese-painted-and-autumn-fernsA 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-painter-fern-detailJapanese 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.)

autumn-fern-detail-juneThe 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?


  1. Keith Alexander says:

    Enchanting, essential plants. My garden would be seriously lacking without these two. Your gorgeous photos rewind my mind to the middle of April, when these plants are usually at their height here in North Carolina.

    The deep garnet fiddleheads of Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’ are like a narrow, shaggy red carpets opening up into the glowing, amber “brilliance” of the open frond. This is an absolutely impeccable recommendation, folks.

    Not to go on and on about colors, but the jewel tones of the the Athyrium niponicum selections have the potential to shock visitors. Occasionally, they can’t believe the teal, turquoise, fuchsia, and amethyst are organic whatsoever.

    I can’t wait to see them in person again next season.

  2. Fred from Loudonville, NY says:

    The perennial garden is not about flowers, they pass to quickly. Gardening is all about foliage texture, and foliage color. Your photos shown, the grays, burgundys, chartreuses and blue-greens that make a garden more than just GREEN. I have a wonderful fern, that my mother dug from the woods when she was about six. She is now 83. It is the toothed fern. It is a clump forming jewel, not a runner like the ostrich fern, I also have.

  3. denden says:

    what post-season care do you give your ferns? do you cut these down in the fall like other perennials?

  4. Erin says:

    Just this spring I planted those two side-by-side, as you have. Seeing your pictures reassures me that for once, I actually planted something in the right place the first time. Beautiful.

  5. Margaret says:

    @Denden: Most of the ferns sort of leave their own mulch at their feet, which withers down to practically nothing, so I leave it if it isn’t a mess…I just eyeball it to decide the aftercare, if any. I can’t recall having to really cut it off (except with the occasional evergreen link Christmas fern maybe if in a prominent spot) but more commonly just mulching over what’s left. So use your judgment, I think.

    @Erin: I suspect you have made more good combinations than you admit to. We are all our own worst critics, aren’t we?

  6. Kathy says:

    Couldn’t garden without ferns. I started buying them years ago for my shady garden and I can always find a new spot or a new fern. I can’t do roses but ferns I can do. They look great tucked away in shady corners or just about anywhere.

  7. Sylvia (England) says:

    Margaret, I cut my old ferns fonds off in early spring – they don’t wither for years. I assume this is to do with climate but I find fern fonds very persistent. I have both of these plus lots of other ferns, they are a great favourite with me. I would grow more if I had more room!

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

  8. Amy Greenan says:

    Just gorgeous. I want to get some of these to add to my little woodland garden, which currently consists of hostas and ferns culled from my dad’s property in southeast New Hampshire (I live in Niagara Falls, NY). Thanks for posting these!

  9. Margaret says:

    Welcome, Amy. Glad they appeal, and are what you are looking for. :) See you again soon.

    @Sylvia: The more I think about it the more I think that some kinds leave behind lots of debris and some don’t. I will have to pay more attention in fall.

  10. Dee/reddirtramblings says:

    I love both of those and have them planted throughout my shade gardens. I love a plant which works well in both your climate and mine.~~Dee

    1. Margaret says:

      @Dee: I can’t believe we have struck upon not one but *two* plants that work for both of us! Hallelujah! So interesting to me to learn this, thank you. Wonder how these beauties do it in such diverse circumstances. Amazing.

  11. Fred from Loudonville, NY says:

    Reading through the fern comments, a lot of the discussion was about left over fern debris. The taller ferns (24″‘ to 30″, or taller) if they are like the toothed fern, from the woodlands, have a lot of fronds, and leaves a lot of russet colored debris, after being hit by a hard frost. The ostrich fern, with a tall “vase shaped” growth habit, produces less fronds, so the debris is less. With all ferns, frost hit debris can be ripped, or cut off in the fall, or early spring whenever a person is cleaning up that part of the garden. Some years, while mulching the leaves, I have taken the mower to them. The ostrich fern produces a kind of mound (crown), after the first year. Every year after that, new growth comes from that spot, and new underground runners. I cut or break off fronds, to clean up the plant, but am cautious, not to damage that “crown”. Ferns like the cinnamon fern, will leave a kind of seed stalk that could stay in place for a long time if not removed. The ferns that Margaret showed , most likely, don’t having a tall growth habit. Being shorter plants, they will just disappear guickly during the winter, leaving not to much remaining. I have an evergreen fern, in a corner of the back garden. It just appeared one day. A bird must have DROPPED it off. In the dead of winter, if it has some snow coverage, it is still green. When buying ferns for the garden, find out if what you like is a clumper, or runner. Some ferns can be evasive, if not kept in check.

  12. Laura says:

    Have you tried the ‘ghost’ lady fern? It is my favorite. A very dependable plant, adds a lovely gray to the garden, but is taller than the japanese painted fern. I particularly like it with blue hostas.

  13. Ted says:

    Laura – you beat me to the punch! I was also going to suggest ‘Ghost’. In my competitive garden it’s a better doer the Japanese Painted fern. Also really love ‘Branford Rambler’. Not quite as showy but really hold its spot all from spring through fall.

  14. jerry says:

    i’m new here. i garden in zone 9a and my favorite plants, the woodland perennials, are difficult with the heat year-round. my favorite plant-american holly.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Jerry. Yes, you have too much heat for some things…and we have too much cold for others. :) I love the catalog of Plant Delights — Tony Avent’s collection of great things, many of them woodlanders. He is in NC, but does collect things for the warmer zones as well. You probably know him already…

  15. Juan says:

    Hi Margaret,
    Thank you for your insight and invaluable tips. I am new home owner, the previous home owner had a nice variety of perennials that i have taken good care of. But, my taste is more distinct which has led me to buy more variety which led me to pick the Japanese ferns. I planted these in a spot where i thought would be more shady than it turned out to be. I noticed that my ferns are still quite small or either the same size i bought them as (panted in early May) and some of the leaves (one or two) have kind of dried up and browned. Do you think i should move them to a more shady area? Do they need more water to compensate for the extra sun/heat they are getting?
    Thanks in advance!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Juan. Not sure how warm a zone you are in, but here they like light shade (for instance, morning light but not the baking of midday or hot afternoon sun of course) and a moist (but not ever wet) soil — one that doesn’t bake and dry out, because it’s rich in humus (you could add lots of compost to the area to help it be more receptive to ferns).

      Now, any plant may sulk when transplanted and lose some leaves/grow slowly (and these are somewhat slow to adjust — they won’t have put on much growth since early May)…but it sounds like you are noticing the spot is just too sunny to suit them. Any chance they can move?

  16. Juan says:

    Thank you for your reply Margaret. It is morning sun…they get sun until about 10am the latest…oh and i am in NJ…not sure what zone that is…but morning sun is not too bad around here…
    I added a sprinkler to wet my lawn that maybe also splashing some water on the ferns every day. Do you think some of the browning leaves might be too much water? I’ll see if i can take a picture of them…
    PS: my wife says they have grown since we bought them maybe i just do not notice lol

  17. Linda Pastorino says:

    I love the health of your ferns.. I planted these years ago trying them where other ferns did well. For me they were slow to start. In some cases they emmerged and are about half the size of yours in a five years or so now. Some have vanished and never thickened up. I’m wondering why? Had you had luck from the start with vigor? I purchased mine when these cultivars first appeared. Maybe they are healthier now?
    I want to try again after seeing how strong and graphic yours are.

    1. margaret says:

      I have always seen both of these as strong growers, Linda. Is the spot very dry — too much competition from tree roots and so on? Interesting.

  18. Linda Pastorino says:

    Hi Margaret

    I planted in three seperate locations. Large area shade under one tree with acid loving plants around but not that much competition as area was huge. planted other ferns, did well these did not.

    second place same time was side of house, tilled bed, lots of drainage, mushroom compost, drip irregation where other ferns were doing well, never really took off and skimpy growth now gone

    Third location same time planted under another tree where there was an old stone wall with other ferns I planted in nave of roots, doing well. most shade most root issues wall issue not much ground and this is the place they have done better?
    Only two survive of about 10 I put in of various cultivars and colors. I did buy pips or roots and and not fulll plants.. Did you buy plants? I sometimes order large quantities from whole sale companies and buy pips. All the other fern types I planted did well, both of the plant and pip variety. I will now try plants of this type again and will see what happens. all areas had great soil, and lots of moisture because of drip irregation and good soil prep. I would have thought no problem..
    Question did hellebores do well for you particularly this year? i have had a banner bloom first time in a long while and all types are blooming this time.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Linda. I have done both — the little pips and the plants. Mystery! As for the hellebores, yes going crazy this year but they generally always do, just not so early.

  19. Linda says:

    Japanese painted ferns do wonderfully well in our zone 5 garden under mature maples where it can get pretty dry. They get sun all morning and part of the afternoon. They’ve been here about five years. We don’t water much either – mostly just in July and August. My mom has an enormous 10-year-old JPF in a bed that’s surprisingly sandy, gets sun until early afternoon, and she never waters. (zone 4) I’m not necessarily recommending them for dry soil, but they do surprisingly well in it.

    I added a couple of Autumn Brilliance ferns this spring – they’re beautiful. I’ll be happy if they do 1/2 as well as the painted ferns.

  20. tami says:

    Hi, I have a jap fern that was bought from the garden center, i was kinda hoping to have it in my living room. It didnt do too well until i tried some humidity. Its probably 5inches tall, I had put one of those huge glass pickle jars over it to give some humidity. I just looked at it and theres some brown ashy stuff under the leaves. It almost looks like it could be bugs but it just rubs off. Is this normal?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Tami. Doesn’t sound normal — but not surprising, because this plant wants to be outdoors, out in the air and open soil, and especially will require a proper winter dormancy. I suggest trying one of the many beautiful kinds of ferns that are better adapted to growing as houseplants and tucking this guy in the ground, where hopefully it will get over its stress.

  21. Carol says:

    I have 3 large fern beds that have thrived in our zone 5. I raised the & leveled of the very shady sloping back yard area 12+ inches, including the Japanese fern bed. Raised it 10-12 inches early summer 2013 & replanted & fertilized them in same location. They are emerging this spring just fine. But I am about to do the same with the 2 mixed autumn & brilliance fern beds. Each surrounds full size cherry trees & have been truly outstanding. Nothing would grow there for 25 years, until I put the autumn ferns in 8-10 years ago. I am concerned because the 17 snow storms we had this winter may have killed/rotted the roots. The fronds have died completely back to the mounded root ball, (never happened before) and only 1/3 of plants maintained any green fronds. No new leaf shoots showing yet. In a week or 2, I need to raise these remaining 2 beds, 30-45 plants in each, as I did with the Japanese ferns. I’m wondering if I have lost them to the very wet & harsh winter. Comments? Recommendations?

  22. lori says:

    I am moving & want to take my very large fern with me. Weather is changing in central pa, would like to pot it so it is portable. Any suggestions? ??

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Lori. I assume we’re talking a perennial outdoor fern, and that you will move it to a new garden spot (outdoors also)? Since it’s getting late, and you want to cause as little upset as possible, I would just be a little generous with my digging so that I kept as much soil around the rhizome as possible, then got it back into the ground as soon after arrival at its new home as I could. I have even moved some ferns in nursery flats (many don’t have deep roots, so the “rootball” was more like a very thick pancake or wedge shape, and didn’t require a deep pot).

  23. martha muller says:

    I have had two tiny japanese ferns for at least 10 years. one is at the base of a tree and i moved the other to my shady bed where it “hides” under daylilly foliage. neither has grown an inch – it seems – since i planted them. they haven’t died…they just are frozen in the same state of growth! i’m in kentucky zone 5 or 6, and i’m tempted to dig them up and move them to another location. should i try to encourage them to grow before i take such drastic action? could it be they don’t get enough (any) sun? since i only see them this time of year when i’m cleaning out all of my backyard gardens for the year, it’s not like i’d miss them if they didn’t make it! LOL thanks for listening!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Martha. Mine are in bright indirect light (no direct sun, filtered light) in soil that is high in organic matter (not clayey or sandy), and that stays evenly moist, never crusty or baking.

      They need their own space to get settled — under a daylily sounds too crowded. They grow really robustly for a fern, and have for many years.

  24. Jenn says:

    My Japanese ferns were growing so well this spring until last night when we had a hard freeze and I forgot to cover them up. Today the ferns look like brown sludge. What should I do?

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