56 catching appeal. hardiness, and eye- possess similarhabits, (right), buttheydo foliage aspaintedferns have thesamecolorful (left)maynot Lady ferns gracefulness. their It’s hardtoarguewith Fine Gardening
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Photo: Photo: Hidden JewelsoftheShadeGarden but whichoneisright ethereal coloringand Nothing beatstheir overall hardiness— By RichardHawke for you? finegardening.com
57 f you’re like me, you find that plants come in and out ize their charms; the few cultivars that we sampled only of favor all the time. A few years ago, I was all over blue whet my appetite for more. I grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis, Zones 4–9), but now it’s Painted ferns and lady ferns stand on their leafy merits like, blue grama who? Then there are those plants that never alone, having no flowers to overshadow the feathery fronds. lose their appeal. Painted fern, from the genus Athyrium, The lushly verdant lady ferns, however, are in marked con- is one of those for me. I never tire of seeing it in gardens; trast to the sage green, silver, red, and burgundy tones of the in fact, my appreciation seems boundless. In my garden, vibrant painted ferns. The delicateness of lady ferns’ fronds sporelings (see “Important fern facts,” p. 63) are pretty com- belies their stoutness. They are durable and hardy garden mon, and I covet every one of them, especially the intrepid plants that can be cultivated throughout North America. My ones that find their way into crannies and other unexpected first impression of the painted and lady fern cultivars was places. It’s not just the forms and colors but their depend- that their distinguishing traits were perhaps too subtle. While ability and versatility that are strengths of this fairly modest that may hold true when viewed separately of each other, plant. When the Chicago Botanic Garden trial started, I was when grown together the cultivars were more distinct than a novice where another group of Athyrium was concerned— expected. I admit that I was primed to like any and all of the lady ferns. However, it took me about a minute to real- them, but there were definitely superior selections in the mix.
In all honesty, sticking with the species and foregoing the cultivars can be just as rewarding in the case of Japanese painted fern (A. niponicum var. pictum). The plants we tri- aled varied in their foliage colors but were especially colorful compared to most of the cultivars. Young fronds were deep red with silvery green tips, eventually lightening to silvery green with hints of red in the veins and along the rachis. Morning sunlight made the colors pop, but too much sun led to heat stress, especially in droughty periods. Since new fronds are produced all season, stressed plants revive when moisture is plentiful again. If you’re OK with a color range rather than a consistent color, then give it a try—after all, it was the Perennial Plant Association’s 2004 Perennial Plant of the Year for a reason.
| AT A GLANCE |
Athyrium spp. and cvs. Zones: 3–8 Conditions: Partial to full shade; moist, well-drained soil Pests and diseases: Occasional rabbit browsing Native range: The genus Athyrium has almost 200 species found around the world. Of the two most common species, A. filix-femina grows naturally on several continents, including North America, and A. niponicum is native to China and Japan.
58 Fine Gardening | april 2019 While the silvery sage green and purple color- ing of ‘Apple Court’ Japanese painted fern (A. niponicum var. pictum ‘Apple Court’) is much like other cultivars, its look is frothier because of the forked and tasseled frond tips. All that tasseling or cresting means there’s just more leaf than with the typical variety, which gives ‘Apple Court’ a somewhat fuller and fluffier habit. The fronds stood up Top performers straighter and taller than those of most cultivars, too, making it one of the largest in the trial at 24 inches tall and 36 inches wide.
Common lady fern (A. filix-femina) bears a passing resemblance to Japanese painted fern, but its long-arching fronds and clumping habit give it a decidedly formal profile. The feathery bright green fronds and graceful form—remi- niscent of a shuttlecock—may give the wrong impression that it’s too delicate for the average garden. Although lady fern was occasionally stressed by heat and drought in midsummer, it showed good heat resistance during an espe cially hot, dry period in 2007. Lady fern is regularly touted as drought tolerant, although I wouldn’t push that too far—it prefers moist, shady locations protected from wind and sun. A plethora of cultivars are available to garden- ers; many of the oldest forms originated in Victorian England. oore; p. 59, M ichelle Gervais (top), Bill Johnson (bottom) Kerry A nn M oore; 57, Visions/gapphotos.com; p. 58, P hotos: p. 56, aul D ebois/gapphotos.com;
finegardening.com 59 (segment) pinnule 60 Rachis pinna (fiddlehead) crosie pinna Rachis rOOTS Fine Gardening like anexpertwhengarden terms canhelpindecipher ogy. Familiaritywiththese describe thefeatheryfoli- specialized fernterminol- and willmakeyousound While common botanical While commonbotanical age offerns,there does ing catalogdescriptions exist anentire worldof visitors askquestions. terms canbeusedto speak How How fern to
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- Top performers (stem) rhizome (leaf) frond 18 inchestalland 30incheswide. pleasingly haphazard arrangement ofarched andtwistedfrondsthatcan reach cvs., Zones4–9, pictured). Itshabit—likethatofallJapanese paintedferns—isa brunnera (Brunneramacrophyllacvs., Zones4–9)orrodgersia(Rodgersiaspp. and spp. andcvs., Zones4–9)suchas ‘Obsidian’ or ‘Black Pearl’ andthelargerleaves of ‘Pewter Lace’minglessublimelywithblack-purple-leaved coral bells(Heuchera same conditionsas ‘Burgundy Lace’. The purplemetalliccolorandlacytexture of beautiful, ‘Pewter Lace’was unaffectedbydroughtstressandleafscorchunder the silver-green withaswath ofpurpledownthemiddlefronds. While bothwere ‘Burgundy Lace’was aclosecolormatchinspring, andbothcultivars maturedto tum ‘Pewter Lace’)areexquisite—darkburgundyaccentedwithsilverygreentips. pic- (A.The youngfrondsof‘PewterLace’Japanesepaintedfern niponicumvar.
Photos: p. 60, Nancy Ondra; p. 61, millettephotomedia.com. Illustration: Elara Tanguy. Top performers
‘Branford Beauty’ (A. ‘Branford Beauty’)—one of three outstanding painted-fern hybrids we trialed—has an upright clumping habit that is full-on lady fern, while the colorful fronds arch and curve like Japanese painted fern. ‘Branford Beauty’ was more uniformly silver-green than other cultivars; early purple high- lights faded quickly, and the aging leaves were of a slightly darker green along the purple rachis. ‘Ghost’ simi larly mirrors the lady fern with dis- tinctly upright fronds and a strongly vase-shaped habit, but its silvery green fronds—brightest in spring— are lighter than ‘Branford Beauty’. Although both are lovely, ‘Branford Beauty’ wasn’t as slow as ‘Ghost’ to emerge in the spring and therefore had the advantage in my eyes.
finegardening.com 61 Top performers
‘Victoriae’ (A. filix-femina ‘Vic- toriae’), a classic Victorian-era lady fern, features crisscrossing slender green pinnae that form distinctive X’s along the rachis and nodding, fan-shaped tips. There’s both a playfulness and a Victorian fussiness to the finely divided fronds. This cultivar’s robust, vase-shaped habit with upright arching stems was a consistent favorite in the trial. Its affinity to ‘Dre’s Dagger’— purportedly a dwarf sport of ‘Victoriae’—was indisputable, although the pinnae of ‘Dre’s Dagger’ were narrower. Were it not for some winter crown dam- age, ‘Dre’s Dagger’ would have gotten four stars, too.
‘Encourage’ (A. filix-femina ‘Encourage’), one of the very best lady ferns in the trial, is a modern selection of the old-timey crested form ‘Vernoniae Cristatum’. The light green fronds are tasseled at the tips, looking like a chorus line of frilly petticoats. Slow to develop the first summer, ‘Encourage’ had a robust vase-shaped habit by the second year and was particularly full and robust by the fourth year. The plants were in full sun by midafternoon, so some leaf scorching was observed occasion- ally in July and August.
62 Fine Gardening | april 2019 Top performers
| culture | Important fern facts
Siting: Painted ferns and lady ferns are generally easy to grow, but proper siting is essential. They prefer moist, well-drained soils in partial to full shade but can tolerate some sun. Morning sunlight enhances the leaf color of painted ferns.
Moisture: Consistent moisture is essential to maintenance keep ferns healthy and lush; even so, fronds may look tattered by summer’s end. Heavy rainfall or irrigation can beat down painted ferns, but fronds pop back in a day or two unless they were broken (the stipes and rachises are brittle).
Pests: Deer rarely touch these ferns, but occasional rabbit brows- ing can be a problem. DIVISION
M aintenance: End- of-season cleanup is a breeze. Simply rake or cut away dried fronds in late fall or early spring.
P ropagation: Spring ‘Branford Rambler’ (A. ‘Branford Rambler’) is essen- division or tissue-culture tially a green-leaved version of Japanese painted fern, is necessary to propa- gate cultivars. and I found it surprisingly refreshing in a sea of silvery curves. Its coloring comes from the lady fern; the bright green fronds lack any silver, but they hold a bit of purple Spores: Fern spores in the rachis and veins. For several years, ‘Branford (brown dustlike specks on the back of fronds) Rambler’ seemed like it was a clumper, but eventually will germinate readily in it began gamboling about like other spreaders, reach- the garden. The seed- ing over 40 inches wide. Although it was periodically lings, called sporelings, will not come true to affected by drought, ‘Branford Rambler’ was notably the the parent. SPORES best looking fern in late August 2010 after a period of seriously dry weather. anielle Sherry (right, top and bottom), gapphotos.com (center right); Hawke (left), D anielle Sherry (right, top and bottom), gapphotos.com (center right); P hotos: p. 62, M ichelle Gervais (top), millettephotomedia.com (bottom); 63, courtesy of R ichard right and bottom left) P lant D elights N ursery (top (top left), Bill Johnson center), courtesy of 65, D anielle Sherry p. 64, D anielle Sherry;
finegardening.com 63 afternoon shade: Morning sun,mid- Mid-afternoon sun: Full shade: Poor Fair Good Excellent 64 plantdelights.com Raleigh, NC;919-772-4794; Plant DelightsNursery fancyfrondsnursery.com Gold Bar, W Fancy Fronds Nursery 5114; farreachesfarm.com Port Townsend, W Far ReachesFarm diggingdog.com Albion, CA; 707-937-1130; Digging DogNursery in thetrialgarden Light exposure Overall rating ★★ ★ | Fine Gardening SOURCES| ★★★ key ; 360-793-1472; A; 360-793-1472; ★★★★ A; 360-385-
| april 2019 • • • Zone: • Howlong: Since 2002,theChicagoBotanicGarden hasevaluated26paintedfernsandladyinourcomparativetrials. Rating increased lightexposure. site tofullsuninmidlateafternoon.Exceptperiodsofdrought, thefernswere generallyadaptabletothe or varyinglevelsoffiltered sunlightthroughout theday. Thelossofalarge tree in2006exposedaportionofthe Care: Conditios: keeping acloseeyeonanydiseaseorpestproblems andassessingplantinjuryoverwinter. ornamental traits,wemonitored howwelltheygrew andadaptedtotheenvironmental andsoilconditionswhile ★★★★ ★★★★ ★★★★ ★★★★ ★★★★ ★★★★ ★★★★ ★★★★ ★★★★ ★★★★ ★★★★ ★★★★ ★★★★ ★★★ ★★★ ★★★ ★★★ ★★★ ★★★ ★★★ ★★★ ★★ ★★ ★★ ★★ ★ We provided minimalcare, allowingplantstothriveorfailundernaturalconditions.Besidesobservingtheir 5b A. filix-femina‘Dre’s Dagger’ (syn. A. filix-feminassp. A. niponicum‘PictumRed’ A. filix-femina‘Encourage’ A. filix-femina‘Plumosum A. filix-femina‘Vernoniae A. niponicum A. niponicumvar. pictum A. niponicum A. niponicumvar. pictum A. niponicumvar. pictum A. niponicumvar. pictum A. niponicum A. niponicumvar. pictum A. niponicumvar. pictum A. niponicumvar. pictum A. filix-femina‘Victoriae’ A. filix-femina‘Frizelliae’ 4 years Well-drained, alkaline,clay-loamsoil.Thenaturallyshadedsiteinitiallyreceived eithernosunlight A. ‘Branford A. Deparia acrostichoides) A. thelypteroides A. ‘Wildwood ‘Burgundy Lace’ ‘Branford Beauty’ A. otophorum A. ‘Apple Court’ ‘Pewter Lace’ ‘Ursula’s Red’ ‘Red Beauty’ athyrium ‘Silver Falls’ ‘Regal ed’ ‘Soul Mate’ ‘Ocean’s Fury’ Axminster’ Cristatum’ A. ‘Ghost’ A. vidalii filix-femina rum var. var. var. Rambler’ T wist’ cycloso- pictum pictum pictum
parameters Trial height 18 in. 25 in. 30 in. 37 in. 33 in. 29 in. 10 in. 22 in. 20 in. 25 in. 24 in. 36 in. 20 in. 19 in. 24 in. 15 in. 18 in. 16 in. 16 in. 11 in. 16 in. 18 in. 20 in. 20 in. 10 in. 12 in. width 40 in. 40 in. 36 in. 40 in. 44 in. 50 in. 22 in. 40 in. 36 in. 36 in. 44 in. 39 in. 32 in. 32 in. 36 in. 27 in. 30 in. 32 in. 24 in. 14 in. 28 in. 30 in. 30 in. 34 in. 22 in. 22 in. silvery green, green, purple silvery green, green, purple bright silverygreen, purple bright silverygreen, purple light yellow-green, bronze light silverygreen, purple silvery green togreen, silvery green, darkred gray-green, burgundy silvery green, purple silvery green, purple silvery green, purple silvery green, purple silvery green, purple silvery green, purple bright green, purple foliage coor green-yellow bright green bright green bright green light green lime green purple green green green green spreading spreading spreading spreading spreading spreading spreading spreading spreading spreading spreading spreading spreading clumping clumping clumping clumping clumping clumping clumping clumping clumping clumping clumping clumping clumping habit exposure
Photo: Newer varieties to obsess over
Unlike with other Japanese painted While you might not know what exactly Truth be told, I had ‘Lemon ferns, the luminous light green fronds of to expect with a name like ‘Godzilla’ Cream’ painted fern (A. ‘Pearly White’ (A. niponicum var. pictum (A. ‘Godzilla’), you know that it won’t niponicum ‘Lemon Cream’) ‘Pearly White’) feature a central swath be meek. In form and color, ‘Godzilla’ briefly a few years ago but of ivory without any purple highlights. looks familiar—arching silvery green had to let it go when I lost Otherwise, this cultivar is just as depend- fronds with green highlights and dark my shade garden. Though I able and easy to grow, but filtered shade purple rachises. But in size, it’s almost was intrigued by the idea of is best to protect the pale leaves from a monster. With the potential to reach lacy green fronds speckled scorching sunlight. To my eyes, pairing 3 feet tall and 6 feet wide, it stands well with lemon-cream spots, I the frosty fronds with white-flowered above and outdistances the average wasn’t sure if it would be false hydrangea (Deinanthe bifida, Zones painted fern. ‘Godzilla’ was discovered fun or look like the pox! 4–8) might be both textural and mono- by Tony Avent at Plant Delights Nurs- Morning sun enhances this chromatic perfection. Both like a moist, ery, so you can be assured it’s not run of fern’s unique coloring, which shady garden, and the juxtaposition of the mill. becomes more prominent lacy fronds and broad, cleft leaves is later in the season. ‘Lemon clever. ‘Pearly White’ grows to about Cream’ has the irregular habit 12 inches tall and 24 inches wide. of a Japanese painted fern but only gets to 8 inches tall and 30 inches wide. ‘Lemon ‘Joy Ride’ (A. niponicum ‘Joy Ride’) is another Cream’ comes from Asia, recent painted-fern introduction from Plant where variegation rules. Avail- Delights Nursery. The green fronds feature a ability may still be limited, silvery central zone and frilly crested tips. I can’t but it’s worth the search. describe the ruffled foliage better than Tony Avent, so why try? “It has more petticoats than you’d see at a RuPaul review.” It’s expected to be 20 inches tall and 36 inches wide, but I have a feeling it’ll look much more substantial.
Richard Hawke is plant evaluation manager for the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois.