"By this tumult afflicted, she
Observed her lover's gestures unbalance the air,
His gait stray uneven
Through a rank wilderness of fern & flower;
She judged petals in disarray,
The whole season, sloven."
Athyrium niponicum var pictum is a fern that vanishes utterly in winter & just barely shows its first nubby little fiddleheads again late in February, returning in ernest toward the middle or end of March or early April.
Typically only about ten inches tall, occasionally up to eighteen inches, I figured such a small & colorful fern should be planted near a path edge. It went alongside flagstones in a spot where it is overshadowed by an Oakleaf Hydrangea.
Behind it is a patch of Cyclamen persicum that bloom in autumn & remain leafy through winter & well into spring. When the cyclamen's leaves are finally vanishing away, the Japanese Painted Fern has gotten showy, so the spot remains interesting year-round.
The first photo shows the Painted Fern well along in April, & in the second photo much more fluffled out in May.
It spreads by short rhyzomes, slowly but easily over time colonizing a two-foot wide area, or larger. So someday the Labrador violets sharing space alongside the flagstones will be displaced, but in the meantime the violets provide a handsome fill-in. The Painted Fern can be divided about every four years, in early spring.
This native to China, Korea, Japan & Taiwan was formerly a favorite mainly of fern fanatics, but due to its beauty was bound eventually to become well-known even among fern novices. It was 2004's Perennial Plant of the Year from the Perennial Plant Association, & that organization's choices invariably go into mass production.
As long as it is kept moist & shaded, it demands no attention to become one of the showiest of all ferns, almost bloom-like in its power to provide color contrasts. The leaves are tricolored, silvery-grey, with burgundy-purple rachis & pinnae midribs, plus wine-red stems. It remains vibrant from spring right on through the first couple autumn frosts.
It can do very occasional with highly deluted feedings, but usually nothing more than a winter top-dressing of compost or leafmold to keep the soil fern-perfect.
We have a similarly colorful fern within the same genus, the Eared Lady Fern (Athyrium otophorum var. okanum) which has burgundy stripes upon the leaves; plus a hybrid with ghostly pale fronds, Athyrium niponicum var pictum x Athyrium filix-femina 'Ghost.'
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