For us avid gardeners in the Pacific NW, where our damp winters create perfect climates for ferns, it is hard to imagine any garden without them. On hikes in the Columbia River Gorge, it is the ferns growing out of a rotting log, on the side of a living trunk, or on a stone cliff face near a waterfall, that make me feel at home and deeply cared for. Ferns do not flower and may rarely be the specimen centerpieces of the home garden, but they are often responsible for the difference between a garden I want to look at from a window and a garden I want to hang out in.
These particular deciduous ferns have thrilled the gardening world with cultivars offering highly varied frond textures, red stalks or colorful foliage in shades of red/purple, orange, silvery/blue, and white. Athyriums are upright growers ranging from 6 inches to 5 feet but generally compact and tidy. The 180 species (and hundreds more cultivars) in this genus offer so much variability that it is somewhat difficult to even talk about the genus as a whole.
However, we are focusing on describing the forms commonly available in the gardening trade. In contrast to ferns in the Polystichum or Dryopteris genus, Athyriums are more delicate, in texture and structure, without any strengthening tissue in the fronds. They can be easily broken and are best used in quieter areas of the landscape, out of the wind, and where kid and dog traffic is minimal.
The Greek word athorus means good at breeding, and most Athyriums are known for being very strong growers. Spores germinate readily and divisions are well-tolerated. Given this, most Lady Ferns are best planted in the landscape, especially in drifting mass plantings, not in containers. A quiet spot under a mature tree will be softened and energized by Athyriums encouraged to spread freely. These ferns offer a wonderful foundation for beds of mixed shade perennials or shrubs.
Athyriums blend seamlessly with more delicately textured perennials, such as bleeding hearts, tricyrtis, or tiarella for the woodland fairy feel. Or they can balance and lighten the energy of strong-textured or large-leaved shade perennials like Carex, Mondo grass, or Bergenia species for a more dramatic design statement. Drifts of Athyriums can also play a vital role of cover for a stream-side habitat planting. Some of the cultivars of A. niponicum ‘Pictum’ are more adaptable to container plantings or possibly even as houseplants.
There are a wide range of ailments reportedly treated with Lady Fern, including many conditions associated with pregnancy and childbirth. Consult a medical professional, however, as raw shoots of this fern can be toxic by robbing the body of its vitamin B supply.
Some varieties you can often find at Portland Nursery include:
An incredibly variable, but generally feathery, species with over 300 forms! This is the species most responsible for the name Lady Fern; in older Greek traditions, this fern was considered the feminine, lacier counterpart to the more robust ‘Male Fern’, Dryopteris filix-mas. These names have nothing to do, however, with how they propagate. The crowns grow erect out of the soil, so dividing and replanting crowns lower and even with the ground every several years will renew the plant’s vigor. Hardy in zones 4-8.
Athyrium filix-femina ‘Cristatum’
Crested Lady Fern: Flat, fan-like crests adorn the tips of the fronds, creating a ruffled look. Green and red stalked varieties are common. Grows 1-2’ tall and wide.
Athyrium filix-femina ‘Frizelliae’
Fronds look more like a string of frizzy flat beads, hardly like a typical fern at all. Though captivating, this variety can sometimes revert to the more wild type of the straight species. Grows 10-12” tall and wide.
Athyrium filix-femina ‘Victoriae’
Victorian Lady Fern: Leaf-lets are criss-crossed, fringed and tiny, giving the overall plant an almost fuzzy texture. Grows 18” tall and wide.
Athyrium filix-femina ‘Lady in Red’
Red stems offer dramatic contrast to bright green fronds. Grows 3’ tall and wide.
Athyrium niponicum: Japanese Painted Fern
Athyrium niponicum: ‘Pictum’
With tri-colored fronds and burgundy colored stems, it is easy to see why this fern was the Perennial Plant of the Year in 2004 (Perennial Plant Assoc) and continues to be one of the most popular gardening ferns in the U.S.
Keep this one in shade to avoid washing out those great colors. In loose and moist soil, new fronds will keep appearing all summer and into fall. The clump size can easily double in one year and is well tolerant of division. Grows 12-18” tall and wide. Hardy in zones 4-9.
Athyrium niponicum: ‘Burgundy Lace’
Offers deep burgundy new growth on plants only 12-15” tall. Zones 4-9.
Athyrium niponicum: ‘Silver Falls’
Large and very silvery fronds on plants about 12” tall. Zones 4-9.
A steely grey-colored hybrid between Lady Fern and Japanese Painted Fern. Plant in at least part shade for best frond color. Tolerates a bit drier soil than close relatives, but do not let soil completely dry out. Grows to 24-36”tall and wide. Zones 4-9.
Athyrium otophorum: Eared Lady Fern
In milder winters, this Athyrium may be evergreen. New growth of striking lime and burgundy colors appears earlier in the spring than many other deciduous ferns. Older fronds mature to a grayish green. Grows 18-24” tall. Zones 6-9.
Common Names: Lady Fern, European Lady Fern, Japanese Painted Fern
Origin: Athyrium filix-femina is native to Europe and Asia and found worldwide. Athyrium niponicum is native to Eastern Asia and also widely available for gardeners everywhere.
Culture: These dependable ferns will grow most happily in evenly moist and shady environments, in loose soils, organically rich and slightly acidic. They may tolerate somewhat sunnier conditions if the soil is adequately moist. For any of the more colorful varieties, partially shady (not fully shady) locations will keep the colors most vibrant. Generally hardy to Zone 3 and becoming unhappy warmer than Zone 9, but it is important to check the info for each cultivar, given the extreme variability of this genus.
Maintenance: If you have chosen the planting location wisely, these ferns are relatively easy to care for. Their deciduous fronds will melt away in the winter, and the only pruning ever required is clean-up of brown or broken fronds. They do not require much, if any fertilizer, though dividing clumps every few years in early spring before much growth has occurred will help keep your drifts of ferns feeling fresh and soft. New frond furls may seem quite tasty to slugs, snails, and aphids, but these ubiquitous garden pests are relatively easily killed/deterred. Please note, however, that ferns in general are quite chemically sensitive, so choose cultural methods of pest management or water-based deterrents before trying insecticidal sprays. Rabbits and deer tend to leave the tender new shoots alone.