The Japanese painted fern, Athyrium niponicum var. pictum, was long considered one of the most lovely of hardy ferns but also, for some gardeners, inconveniently tricky to grow. Each division of the softly grey-green fronds has a silvery zone along the centre, all enhanced by a red midrib. It’s very pretty and, given shade and moisture, spreads steadily. Lack of moisture, and unusually cold winters, will cause it to struggle.
This is a lovely plant for shade gardens, the new fronds mingling with spring perennials and bringing more impact to the shade garden as they spread in summer.
Most nurseries propagated this plant by division, so that all the new plants resembled the parent. But a few sowed spores and found that some of the progeny were like the parent, some were less well marked but some were definite improvements. Some of these extra special forms were selected and given names. Two stand out.
The AGM-winning ‘Silver Falls’ (right) is far more highly silvered than most forms and I’ve found it makes a lovely partner with the silver striped sedge ‘Amazon Twist’; the colours harmonise prettily while the leaf shapes contrast.
In ‘Ursula’s Red’ the red zone along the midrib is much broader and richer, although it contracts as the season progresses, and this is lovely with epimediums.
There’s also a small group of hybrids between the Japanese painted fern and American forms of the lady fern, Athyrium filix-femina. The result has been plants that combine the colouring of A. niponicum with the compactness and robust growth of the lady fern.
Look for names such as 'Ocean's Fury' (see photo, right), 'Branford Beauty' and the AGM-winning 'Ghost'. These are fine partners for hostas, contrasting in leaf shape and texture and bringing what we might call a more hearty delicacy to shade plantings: the plants look as if they're going to be a little fragile but, in fact, are unexpectedly tough.
I’ve found that these hybrids make excellent companions for hostas, the contrast in leaf shape is very effective and there’s enough variation in the size and colour of hostas to create partnerships that appeal.
* Some botanists have separated A. niponicum and three other species into a new genus: Anisocampium. The RHS has not accepted this change but the name is occasionally seen.