The Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum) and all associated cultivars have become very popular components in the part shade and shade garden. These textural perennials (hardy to zone 4) offer quite a color contribution that helps brighten up gardens that become less reliant on blooms and thereby more reliant on foliage coloration. The "original" Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum) was offered over 10 years ago and the species is native to Japan, Korea, Taiwan and the surrounding areas. The Perennial Plant Association named this fern the 2004 Perennial Plant of the Year which permanently put this deer-resistant, colorful fern in to the limelight. Over the past 6-8 years, we've seen quite an increase in "named" varieties of this fern although I'll state that for the most part, the differences are quite subtle. It is important to note that the mature coloration of a Japanese painted fern may take 2-3 years to establish and that in our spring and summers, the coloration of an emerging painted fern is quite different from the summer coloration. Other factors that affect the health and ultimate coloration of a painted fern selection include soil type, sun exposure, available moisture and other factors. These ferns though have few insect or disease problems. The images above are a good example of color variability as the top photo shows the summer coloration (more silver) with the image directly above showing spring coloration (more burgundy) that would later become more silver. There is a "transition of color" for all of these ferns between June and July. In the fern & moss garden at RBG, we have EVERY variety of Japanese painted fern that we've run across (about 16) and I would have to say that 10 or so of these varieties are indistinguishable from the original plant. They all have fancy names and I've included some below that, in my opinion, truly look different for the "extremes" in either the silver or burgundy coloration. Regardless, we have found all of them to be strong growers to about 15-18"" tall and good companions for other neighboring plants like hostas, lungworts (Pulmonaria), barrenworts (Epimedium), false forget-me-nots (Brunnera), etc. As seen directly below, the combination of visual texture and silver fronds makes this an indispensable fern in the partly shaded garden.A few of the more notable varieties are included here like the crested painted fern called 'Applecourt' directly above. Note the crested or flared ends of the fronds which are quite interesting. Cresting in ferns has long been a desireable trait and while subtle, does add to the visual interest and appreciation. I wont go in to all the specifics of each variety as they are really subjective assessments of slight differences in appearance. I should mention that in a clump of say, 10 of the same variety, there are slight differences as well. Do note not only the differences but the similarities in these varieties. To the left side are 'Burgundy Lace' and 'Pewter Lace' respectively which are both known for having stronger burgundy highlights in both spring and summer. I like both of these varieties very much. To the right are 'Ursula's Red' and 'Silver Falls' respectively. 'Silver Falls' truly has the most silvering of all the varieties and I feel is one of the best for offering that "punch of silver" in the garden. I've seen painted ferns used quite well as single specimens although consider the repetition of these throughout a long or deep border to create some balance and harmony in the composition. I've also seen huge drifts of multiple Japanese painted ferns used as a nice groundcover. By placing these clumping ferns about 24" apart, you can create a nice, effective groundcover although moisture and rich soils will certainly help increase the health and vigor of these ferns. Directly below is the variety 'Wildwood Twist' which is thought to have a twisting stem that creates more interest with the fronds (looks "wavier").A week or two ago, I blogged about the 'Ghost Fern' (Athyrium hybrida) which is a cross between the Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum) with the lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina). Directly below is a nice shot of the 'Ghost' fern which features the silvering of the painted fern parent and the vigor/height (30"-36") of the lady fern parent. There are other named varieties of these same crosses that have some merit for that same combination of traits. The second photo down (below 'Ghost') is 'Branford Beauty' and next down is 'Branford Rambler'. Both offer silvering, albeit not as "bright" as 'Ghost', and are good candidates for the garden. 'Branford Rambler' will create an expanding clump and is nice as a medium height groundcover (24"). At the bottom is a neat new variety called 'Ocean's Fury' which a cross between Japanese painted fern and the crested lady fern resulting in a 30" tall, silver fern with showy cresting at the frond tips.