Beautiful and Easy: The Lady Ferns

Athyrium nipoinicum ‘Thrill Seeker’

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.

Southern lady fern, Athyrium asplenioides grow to three feet or more tall where it is happy

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.

Japanese painted ferns grows well in containers, mixed with Begonia rex

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.  

Volunteer hybrid sporelings may appear near mature ferns. You can dig them up to move or pot, or allow them to grow.

Lady ferns easily hybridize when ferns grow near one another.  Hybrids between native A. filix-femina, and the Asian A. niponicum come to market as some of the most colorful and beautiful named selections available.  Silver, white and grey coloration on the fronds indicates A. niponicum parentage.

Athyrium ‘Ghost’ is a hybrid of Athyrium filix-femina and Athyrium niponicum

Grow most Athyrium species and cultivars in shade to full sun.  If growing your fern in a sunny location, place it where the ground remains moist and mulch around it.  Frond color may vary depending on the amount of light the fern receives, especially with the Japanese painted fern hybrids. 

Lady ferns prefer moist soil enriched with organic material.  Add a little compost when you plant if your soil is mostly clay.  Put a little slow release fertilizer on top of the soil if you plant your fern in a pot.  Deer and rabbits leave lady ferns alone and there are few, if any, disease or pest problems to concern you. 

Athyrium filix-femina ‘Victoriae’ is a traditional English variety in the trade for more than a century

Lady ferns begin to unfurl their fiddleheads in early spring as trees begin to leaf out.  As each lacy frond unfurls, you’ll want to monitor its progress and marvel at its effortless beauty.  Lady ferns are grown for their fancy, often intricate fronds.  Some are forked or crested on the ends, and some varieties sport burgundy or purple stems, or stipes. Most varieties continue to unfurl new fronds throughout the season. 

Eared lady fern, Athyrium otophorum, has red stipes all season. Fronds change color as they mature. It is hardy in Zones 6-9.

Most lady ferns grow to 18”’-36” tall and grow in slowly expanding clumps.  Some cultivars also expand year to year with underground rhizomes, slowly creeping away from the established plant, sending up new clumps of fronds nearby.  This makes them excellent on banks, to hold the soil, and wherever you want an easy living ground cover.

Southern lady fern expands with underground rhizomes, to send up new clumps nearby.

New clumps can be dug up and potted or moved.  Lady ferns are never invasive.  Use them in foundation plantings, in borders with bulbs and other perennials, in potted arrangements, as groundcover, or under shrubs and trees. 

Expect to enjoy your lady ferns until frost, when their fronds will wither.  Athyrium species are deciduous.  Just mark where the plants grow to reserve their place for the following year.  Elegant and easygoing, Athyriums are valued as long-lived ferns for most any garden.

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