Beautiful and Easy: The Lady Ferns

Japanese painted fern Athyrium ‘Metallicum’ grows with silvery Rex Begonias.

When you’re planning what to plant, do your eyes sometimes glaze over while reading the growing instructions?  Does it all seem too complicated, to find some success with the plants you want to grow?  No one earns points on a tally for growing complicated plants.  Maybe that is why I love growing ferns.  Most are happy enough to find a home for their roots that they just take off, making a beautiful planting with very little effort.

Ferns are such ancient plants, appearing in the fossil record millions of years ago, long before the first tree or flower, that the same species may be native to several continents.  Take the classic lady fern, Athyrium filix-femina.  It is considered native to North America, Great Britain, Europe, Asia and northern Africa. Related North American natives include the northern lady fern. Athyrium angustum (Zones 4-8), and the southern lady fern, Athyrium asplenioides (Zones 5-9).

There are nearly 200 Athyrium species, which grow throughout the northern hemisphere. Any curious gardener can fill a garden with an Athyrium collection.  There are beautiful selections more than 100 years in cultivation, and new selections regularly come on the market.

Some of the most colorful and ornamental lady ferns are native to Asia.  The most well-known, the Japanese painted fern, Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum,’ has burgundy stipes and silver markings on its sometimes gray, sometimes burgundy fronds.  Another beautiful Asian fern, the eared lady fern, Athyrium otophorum, emerges greenish gold and matures to a beautiful shade of green.  All of these are hardy in our area.  

Athyrium filix-femina ‘Victoriae’

Read the rest of this post , and see more fern photos, on my new site, Our Forest Garden

About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

One response to “Beautiful and Easy: The Lady Ferns

  1. Monica MacAdams

    Quite right! I had very few ferns in my Brooklyn NY garden (I never much liked them), but after moving to a house in DC with a mostly-shady property in which deer roamed around, eating all my newly-planted hostas among other things, I quickly learned the virtues of ferns. Indeed, one cd argue I’ve overdone it, but I LOVE “autumn ferns” which look good throughout the winter; I definitely overdid the “ostrich ferns” not knowing how aggressively they spread; I also planted a few “holly ferns” (not sure what they’re really called), which I always think are dead in the spring, but come back (knock wood). Last year, I planted Japanese painted ferns to complement a crop of Brunnera “Alexander’s Great” (jury still out; color works gorgeously but they seem precariously delicate) and something called “ghost ferns” which disappointed me a bit…not as “silvery” as I expected…but seem to be thriving in their second year. I’ve also found that the presence of ferns helps protect more deer-tasty plants in their midst…not foolproof, but nothing is…in gardens or life, right?

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