What is a Japanese Painted Fern?

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  • Written By: Deneatra Harmon
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 13 October 2019
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A Japanese painted fern, or Athyrium nipponicum pictum, germinates as a perennial plant. It displays an equal proportion of height and width in mostly shaded areas. Colors of the wispy foliage appear painted rather than evergreen, hence the name painted fern. This low-maintenance fern withstands cold-hardy conditions and generally grows at a slow to moderate pace. A Japanese painted fern adds some contrast to other shade-based perennials.

The plant returns every year regardless of whether it is cold or hot outdoors. The perennial is considered to be deciduous because while it remains, the leaves die back during harsh winter seasons. A native of Japan and other Asian countries, the Japanese painted fern has experienced popularity in other regions. One national trade organization, the Perennial Plant Association, has even awarded the fern as "plant of the year."

The Japanese painted fern tends to grow upright, with clumps of foliage that spread widely. The fern eventually gets up to 12 to 18 feet in height (approximately 0.3 to 0.4 m high), while the spread grows to 12 to 18 inches in width (approximately 35 to 40 cm). The painted fern grows up in a style that resembles a vase, while the leaves usually droop or "weep."


The common name for this fern comes from the fact that the foliage looks painted. The fern leaves, also known as "fronds," display in bright green, silver or burgundy, adding a splash of color to any evergreen-based garden. Sometimes the fronds may appear in color combinations such as silver and burgundy and red and silver. Some mixed-color painted fern cultivars exist because of plant tissue culture selection programs, resulting in variants such as "Silver Falls," "Soul Mate," "Burgundy Lace" and "Samurai Sword." Stems of the Japanese painted fern often appear in purple, burgundy, or red wine colors.

Rich, organic compost helps the Japanese painted fern grow to its normal height and width without much maintenance. These ornamental plants also thrive when the soil is well drained with some moisture. Gardening experts recommend planting Japanese painted ferns during cooler temperatures starting in the spring for best results. The Japanese painted fern may be planted by seed, or by transplanting the roots and cuttings into the soil. While many plants prefer sunlight, this perennial prefers partial to full shade.

Popularity of the Japanese painted fern results from its ability to accent any landscape or garden without becoming invasive. This type of fern adds color and variety to a shaded environment, and it gets along well with other plant species. The fern may be planted along with hostas, columbines, foamflowers, and epimediums, to name a few.


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