Plant Profile: Athyrium - Lady Ferns for the Woodland Garden

Plant Profile: Athyrium - Lady Ferns for the Woodland Garden

By and Published January 17, 2023

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The genus Athyrium is a cosmopolitan group with worldwide distribution. They are commonly called lady ferns. The genus has about 180 species. They are usually easy to grow and dependable. Lady ferns have delicately dissected fronds and a wide variability in form. The derivation of the name Athyrium is uncertain, but most sources say it is derived from the Greek, a, "without", and thureos, "door" which refers the fronds not having a door-shaped indusium. Though they may resemble many other woodland ferns in general appearance, the elongated and often j-shaped sori (clusters of sporangia) are distinctive. The well-known and beloved Japanese painted fern has recently been recognized to be a member of a closely related but distinct small genus of 4 species (Anisocampium) and is now referred to as Anisocampium nipponicum.

List of Athyrium (Lady Fern) Varieties

Athyrium angustum 'Lady in Red' (Lady in Red Northern Lady Fern) From a volunteer at The New England Wildflower Society comes a lovely selection of our native Northern lady fern. The lacy, light green foliage is held upright on dark, brilliant red-violet stipes (fern stems). Each plant of this slowly spreading fern should spread to 3' in 5 years. This deciduous, easy-to-grow fern makes a great blending plant for hosta and other bold-leaf plants in the woodland garden. (Hardiness Zone 3a-8b)

Athyrium asplenioides (Southern Lady Fern) This is the typical lady fern found growing as a native in the Southeastern states. It is a very attractive species that is very similar and in fact often synonymized with the Northern lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina). It performs very well in our climate and doesn’t need anything fancy to thrive, just give it good garden soil and a partly shaded to shaded location and don’t let it dry out. Like most lady ferns, this one will often look shabby after a few months but will put out new leaves to replace the shabby ones. You may cut the tattered fronds to encourage a re-flush and keep the garden looking fresh. There is a massive amount of variation in the size and color of the stipe (stem) within the range of this species, but many of the finest selections have nice dark red stipes. This species should be used more frequently for heat tolerance in hybrid fern production. (Hardiness Zone 3a-9b)

Athyrium asplenioides ‘Redneck Girl’ (Redneck Girl Southern Lady Fern) We are pleased to finally introduce our Wake County, NC selection of our native southern lady fern, Athyrium asplenioides. We selected and named 'Red Neck Girl' as a heat-loving counterpart to the northern-selected Athyrium 'Lady in Red'. For us, Athyrium 'Red Neck Girl', makes a very vigorous clump of 30" tall fronds, each held on a bright red stipe (leaf stalk). The finely cut frond looks great against the red stalk...we think you'll really enjoy having this red neck girl in your garden. Average to slightly moist garden soils are fine. (Hardiness Zone 3a-9b)

Athyrium asplenioides ‘Richmond Hill’ (Richmond Hill Southern Lady Fern) This is another fine selection with red stems that are a little less vibrant than those of ‘Redneck Girl.’ We encountered this plant growing just north of Asheville, NC where it really stood out to us, and it has continued to impress us in the garden. (Hardiness Zone 3a-9b)

Athyrium brevifrons ‘Mt. Chiri’ (Mt. Chiri Korean Lady Fern) This marvelous deer-resistant fern hails from 4,200' elevation near the peak of Korea's famed Mt. Chiri. It has become one of our garden favorites. Expect it to make a 15" tall x 15" wide deciduous clump of finely textured silvery-grey foliage adorning a red stipe. The overall effect of a mature clump is a pewter colored fern. A. brevifrons ‘Mt. Chiri’ has proven amazingly easy and durable in our trials...simply wonderful! (Hardiness Zone 4b-8b)

Athyrium cyclosorum (Western Lady Fern) aka Athyrium filix-femina var. cyclosorum Imagine our native Southern lady fern but three to four times the size! That is the stature of well-grown specimens of the variable species known as Western lady fern. This beauty is often found in lowland evergreen forests and the famed “rain forests” of the Pacific Northwest, which is also where the largest specimens are seen. Fronds can achieve 3-6’ in length in the best conditions. Though many western species struggle in the Southeast, we have found a selection of Athyrium cyclosora from Siskiyou County, California that has done quite well here. (Hardiness Zone 4a-8b)

Athyrium filix-femina (Lady Fern) This easy-to-grow, clumping, native fern is adaptable to moist sunny gardens as well as dry shade. The 8" wide upright light green fronds can reach 3' tall when happy. Athyrium filix-femina is a wide-ranging species, occurring in both the US and Europe.  During the Victorian fern craze of the 1800’s many selections of Athyrium filix-femina were made, mostly from European genetics. One could quite easily publish a book on just the selections of lady fern. (Hardiness Zone 3a-8b)

Athyrium filix-femina 'Encourage' (Encourage Crested Lady Fern) This vegetatively propagated selection of the deciduous, southern lady fern was selected by Angelo and Carol Randaci. Each 1' wide clump of light green foliage is composed of 18" long arching fronds, each ending with a huge petticoat. (Hardiness Zone 3a-8b)

Athyrium filix-femina 'Fancy Fronds' (Fancy Fronds Lady Fern) This dwarf lady fern, introduced by Washington’s Judith Jones, makes a 8" tall by 8" wide clump of light green foliage. Each stem ends in a fimbriate petticoat-like crest (frizzy). Each side of the central stipe (stem) is also lined with these frizzy petticoats. Athyrium ‘Fancy Fronds’ is a dwarf cutie, but because of its diminutive size, its vigor is equally reduced. (Hardiness Zone 3a-8b)

Athyrium filix-femina 'Frizelliae' (Tatting Fern) This selection of deciduous lady fern from Europe is one of the most unique ferns available today. Found in 1857 in Ireland in the garden of a Mrs. Frizell, the tatting fern is known to most avid gardeners. The narrow fronds, to less than 1" wide, are clothed up both sides with fuzzy green, ear-like projections. Athyrium ‘Frizelliae’ makes a small 1' tall by 18" wide specimen plant for a special spot in the woodland! (Hardiness Zone 3a-8b)

Athyrium felix-femina 'Lady in Lace' PPAF (Lady in Lace Lady Fern) The stunning 12” by 12” selection of Athyrium filix-femina makes a dwarf parsley-like mound. Like Athyrium ‘Fancy Fronds’, it’s vigor is greatly reduced. (Zone 3-8)

Athyrium filix-femina 'Minutissimum' (Dwarf Lady Fern) One of our favorite ferns for the small garden. This easy-to-grow fern prefers slightly moist soil, but is also very drought tolerant. Athyrium 'Minutissimum' forms a delightful 1' tall by 2' wide clump of arching light green fronds, which is much shorter than a full-sized lady that can reach 3-4' in height. (Hardiness Zone 4-8 at least)

Athyrium filix-femina 'Victoriae' (Victoria Lady Fern) Considered the "Queen of Ferns," this exquisite selection of the deciduous lady fern was the pride and joy of the Victorian fern craze. The narrow pinnae are like little green boomerangs. As they are attached to each side of the stem, the effect is a three-dimensional stunner. At the end of each pinna, the fronds are crested, adding to the exquisite beauty. For us, Athyrium filix-femina ‘Victoriae’ forms an 18" tall by 18" wide clump. (Hardiness Zone 4-8)

Athyrium otophorum (Asian Lady Fern) This lovely, 2' wide fern is one of those that is actually recognizable from a distance. The triangular, plastic-like, pewter-green fronds are accented with dark reddish stipes (stems). When the new growth of Athyrium otophorum emerges, the contrast of the unfurling, new reddish foliage is dynamite against the green of the fronds. (Hardiness Zone 6a-9b)

Athyrium rubripes (Siberian Lady Fern) We are constantly being surprised by the heat tolerance of the many amazing plants we have grown from spore given to us by Russian plantsman Konstantin Cherezov. These plants hail from Siberia north of Vladavostok along the Pavlinovka River just east of the Chinese border. It is very similar and sometimes considered to be a variety of the widespread lady fern (A. filix-femina). It has sailed through our hot-humid summers and since the native range includes most of the coniferous forests of Siberia and northeastern-most China we suspect the cold hardiness is extreme! (Hardiness Zone 3a-8a, guessing)

Anisocampium sheareri (Shearer’s Painted Fern) aka: Athyrium sheareri Anisocampium shearei is a lovely groundcover, shared by fern guru and author, John Mickel, in 2011. This is a very slow spreader, which hails from valleys and streamsides to 6000' elevation in China, Japan, and Korea. Genetically, Anisocampium shearei is fascinating since it is an apomictic triploid (three times the normal number of chromosomes, and it can't have meaningful sex). Anisocampium shearei has very dark, almost black foliage. (Hardiness Zone 5a-8b, guessing)

List of Anisocampium nipponicum (Japanese Painted Fern) Varieties

Anisocampium niponicum (Japanese Painted Fern) aka: Athyrium niponicum This variable species from Japan is the more common, naturally occurring, version of what we know as the Japanese painted fern. While the growth habit is the same (a 2' wide clump), each dark green frond is highlighted by a dark purple central leaf stipe. This easy-to-grow fern is perfect for making a large woodland mass. Though well known as a species of lady fern (Athyrium), it has now been determined to be a member of the related genus Anisocampion. (Hardiness Zone 5a-8b)

Anisocampium niponicum 'Apple Court' (Apple Court Japanese Painted Fern) We obtained this gem in 1994 from Roger Grounds and Diana Grenfell, former owners of Apple Court Nursery in the UK. This amazing selection of Japanese painted fern not only has lovely purple, silver, and green markings, but each leaf is dramatically crested both up the sides and onto the tip. Our specimen in the garden has matured at 1' tall by 2' wide. This is a superb addition to the woodland garden that we were very pleased to name and introduce to commerce in 2003. (Hardiness Zone 5a-8b)

Anisocampium niponicum 'Burgundy Lace' PP 15,072 PVR (Burgundy Lace Japanese Painted Fern) The new leaves of Anisocampium niponicum ‘Burgundy Lace’ are a stunning purple with silver stripes along the vein lines and tips. As the older leaves mature, they transform into a contrasting silvery green with purple midribs. 'Burgundy Lace' forms a dazzling clump. (Hardiness Zone 5a-8b)

Anisocampium niponicum ‘Lemon Cream’ (Lemon Cream Japanese Painted Fern) We probably should call Anisocampium niponicum 'Lemon Cream' Japanese Splattered Fern instead of Japanese painted fern. This Japanese oddity is exactly what people who like this kind of thing will like. The typical lacy green leaves are speckled with lemon cream blotches, barely evident in spring but becoming quite prominent by late summer and early fall. Our clumps of the deciduous Anisocampium niponicum 'Lemon Cream' have reached 18" tall x 30" wide and create a "gotcha" moment in the woodland garden. The best coloration is achieved with very open shade or a couple of hours of morning sun. This was named and originally introduced to the US by plantsman Barry Yinger. (Hardiness Zone 5a-8b)

Anisocampium niponicum 'Pewter Lace' PP 15,721 (Pewter Lace Japanese Painted Fern) This Terra Nova selection of the Japanese painted fern makes a 2' wide clump composed of fronds of a nice pewtery silver color, highlighted by a dark central zone. (Hardiness Zone 5a-8b)

Anisocampium niponicum 'Pictum' (Pictum Japanese Painted Fern) This wonderful 12-18" tall by 24" wide, deciduous, clumping fern is sure to garner attention in the woodland garden. This is the name given to the spore strain of Japanese painted fern that has silver and purple in the foliage. The purple, silver and green leaves blend well with a variety of companion plants. Currently, most Japanese painted ferns on the market are grown by divisions/tissue culture to assure more uniformity than when these are grown from spores. In cooler climates, Japanese painted ferns will also grow well in full sun. (Hardiness Zone 5a-8b)

Anisocampium niponicum 'Silver Falls' PP 12,803 PVR (Silver Falls Japanese Painted Fern) From Oregon's Diana Ballantyne comes a vegetatively propagated selection of the wonderful Japanese painted fern. 'Silver Falls' has long, arching fronds that display an extraordinary amount of silver patterning, highlighted by the dramatic red-purple veining in the leaves. (Hardiness Zone 5a-8b)

Anisocampium niponicum 'Soul Mate' (Soul Mate Japanese Painted Fern) This selection of Japanese painted fern, from Angelo and Carol Randaci, has small lacy crests at the tip of each frond that aren’t nearly as showy as Anisocampium niponicum ‘Apple Court’. In color, the leaves have the same purple stems and silver-marked pinnae of the species. ‘Soul Mate’ forms a small 15" wide clump. (Hardiness Zone 5a-8b)

Anisocampium niponicum 'Wildwood Twist' (Wildwood Twist Japanese Painted Fern) This unique selection of the Japanese painted fern comes our way from NC's own reclusive plant breeder, Thurman Maness (of Lobelia fame). Anisocampium japonicum ‘Wildwood Twist' has fronds which emerge a lovely silver-grey, although we haven't seen any sign of a twist...perhaps that's what Thurman did when he found it. This 18" tall by 3' wide clump is one of the most asked about selections of Japanese painted fern in our garden. (Hardiness Zone 5a-8b)

List of Anisocampium/Athyrium Hybrids

Athyrium 'Branford Beauty’ (Branford Beauty Hybrid Painted Fern) From the garden of Connecticut’s Nick Nickou, comes this a hybrid between the Japanese painted fern (Anisocampium niponicum 'Pictum') and our native Southern lady fern (Athyrium asplenioides). The result is a splendid, stiffly upright, clump-forming, fern. Each leaf has the muted colors of purple, silver, grey, and green suffused through the foliage, which is taller and more delicate than Anisocampium nipponicum. (Hardiness Zone 3a-8b)

Athyrium 'Branford Rambler' (Branford Rambler Hybrid Painted Fern) This 1970's Nick Nickou hybrid is a cross between Athyrium filix-femina × Anisocampium niponicum 'Pictum'. Athyrium 'Branford Rambler' makes a stoloniferous, clump to 2' wide in 5 years. The 18" tall fronds of mahogany tinged green compose the clump. (Hardiness Zone 3a-8b)

Athyrium 'Ghost' (Ghost Fern)  This wonderful fern hybrid comes from the Virginia garden of the late Nancy Swell. This vigorous and easy-to-grow hybrid between Japanese painted fern (Anisocampium niponicum 'Pictum') × Southern lady fern (Athyrium asplenioides) combines the best features of both parents. The result is a rigidly upright fern to 2-3' tall with the silvery grey foliage of the Anisocampium niponicum. The "formal" effect of this fern opens up a new array of design possibilities in the woodland garden...superb as a hosta companion. (Hardiness Zone 3a-8b)

Athyrium 'Godzilla' (Godzilla Hybrid Painted Fern) This sporeling showed up in our garden in the mid-1990s and it wasn't long before we realized we had something special. There was something about its 3' tall by 6.5' wide proportions that were a bit out of the ordinary for a typical Japanese painted fern, despite its typical painted fern leaf appearance. Although the leaf backs were covered in patches of felty brown spores, there was no viability, indicating some horticultural hanky panky with a nearby lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) had conceived this "mule." (Hardiness Zone 5a-8b)

Athyrium 'Ocean's Fury' PP 20,126 (Ocean’s Fury Hybrid Painted Fern) From North Carolina's own Thurman Maness, comes this new Japanese painted fern hybrid forming a 3' tall by 2' wide clump with silver green fronds, each ending with an attractive petticoat...a unique breakthrough. (Hardiness Zone 3a-9b)

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