The right way to Plant, Develop, and Care For Japanese Painted Ferns

This striking, noteworthy plant has received several awards for its beauty and relevance in the gardening world. In 2004, this fern was named the Perennial Plant of the Year by the Perennial Plant Association, an award reserved for only one plant per year. 

The Royal Horticultural Society has also recognized the plant and awarded it the prestigious Award of Garden Merit to the species. It isn’t difficult to understand why these awards were rightfully given. This is one stunning plant. 

If you want a stunning addition to the shade garden, you’ve come to the right place. This shade-lover is beautiful and relatively easy to care for. Let’s look at this fascinating plant and discuss how to plant, grow, and care for the Japanese painted fern


Close-up of a Japanese Painted Fern plant in the garden. Its fronds are a vibrant combination of silvery-gray and burgundy, with a delicate and feathery texture.


Partial to full shade

Watering Requirements


Pests & Diseases

Snails, Slugs, Leaf Scorch

Soil pH

5.5-7.0 Acidic, Neutral


Close-up of lush fern foliage in the garden. The Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum) is known for its unique and visually striking foliage. Its fronds are finely divided, feathery, and display a captivating combination of silvery-gray and burgundy hues.The popularity of this fern led to its introduction in the Americas, and its ease of care makes it a favorite among gardeners.

This fern variety has a long history of use in Japanese landscape design. In fact, it has been used in this way for centuries, as its elegance and beauty are a wonderful complement to other garden plants. With its unique leaf colors and texture, word of this fern has traveled outside of its native range and is now quite popular in many different parts of the world. 

The popular fern began to gain notoriety outside of its native range as it made its way to Europe in the 1880s. During the Victorian Era, ferns became popular parlor plants, and this species was especially prized for its unique foliage. 

From there, the plant didn’t take long to travel to the Americas. Its ease of propagation and relative ease of care have contributed to its popularity, and today, it is a favorite among many accomplished gardeners.

Native Area

Top view, close-up of four Athyrium niponicum var. pictum on a stone covered with moss, in the forest. The Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum) boasts distinctive fronds with bluish-green, finely divided leaflets, creating a delicate, feathery texture.This fern, native to Eastern Asia, adorns shade gardens with its striking foliage and elegant appearance.

As the name suggests, Japanese painted fern is native to Eastern Asia, including Japan, China, and Korea. It has been used in this region for centuries to decorate shade gardens, with its stunning and unique foliage and graceful form. 


Close-up of an Athyrium niponicum plant in a shady forest. Athyrium niponicum, commonly known as the Japanese Painted Fern, features exquisite leaves characterized by a graceful and finely divided structure. The fronds showcase a captivating blend of silvery-gray and burgundy hues, creating a striking contrast.This shade-loving plant has colorful foliage and is suitable for in-ground and container plantings.

Like other ferns, this variety is a shade plant that likes rich, moist soil and performs best when kept out of direct sunlight. Some cultivars are smaller, growing no more than six to 12 inches tall, while others are known to reach heights of up to three feet tall and wide. 

The foliage is colorful and highly decorative, which has caused no small rise in the plant’s popularity over the years. It is an herbaceous perennial that performs well in the ground or as a container plant, forming a dense, low mound of fine, toothy leaves on long, graceful stems. 

The foliage color varies, with some varieties sporting silvery leaves veined with bright purple and others flushed with a deep shade of red. It is hardy in zones 4-9. As a perennial fern, the foliage dies back in the winter, but the roots are cold-tolerant. In spring, the fern will return as robust as ever.


Close-up of an Athyrium niponicum plant with lush feathery foliage. Japanese Painted Fern features eye-catching foliage characterized by its finely divided, delicate fronts. These leaves exhibit a striking blend of silvery-gray and purple hues.This fern is favored for ornamental landscaping, providing color and texture, and it’s safe for pets and humans.

The Japanese painted fern is primarily used as an ornamental plant popular in landscape design. Its low, mounding growth habit and attractive foliage make it particularly popular as a foreground plant in the shade garden. 

This plant adds significant color, texture, and beauty to the garden. It is considered non-toxic to pets and humans, making it a safe plant for all spaces, even indoors with curious pets. It has no known uses outside of its ornamental value, although the young shoots are edible and are occasionally used in this fashion.

Where to Buy

The availability of this fern varies based on the rarity of the variety. Some more common varieties are easy to locate at the local nursery. Rarer varieties will likely require some hunting and may need to be purchased online. Because of their ease of propagation, it’s not difficult to locate most varieties this way.


Close-up of new leaves of a Painted Japanese Fern emerging in late spring. The leaves are finely divided, displaying a delicate and feathery structure. They are silvery-gray with purple central stems.In spring, transplant carefully to allow root growth before winter.

Ferns should be transplanted in the spring to ensure adequate root establishment and growth before the winter. Their roots are somewhat fragile, so care should be taken when handling them so as not to break or damage the root tissue. If you are moving this plant from one location to another, the best time is in the early spring while it is still dormant. 

The amount of space that the fern needs depends on the variety, but in general, give your painted fern about two feet of space all the way around to prevent overcrowding. These ferns will spread under favorable conditions, forming a large clump or colony in a hedgelike shape. 

Choose a spot in the garden with no more than partial sun (fewer than four hours of direct sun daily), as the leaves will look their best under low light conditions. They require constant moisture to establish strong roots, particularly in the first year. Make sure to keep your ferns well watered when they are young.

How to Grow

Ferns, in general, are not fussy about their care, but they do have some specific needs that, when not met, can spell disaster for the plant. In keeping with other plants of the same family, the painted fern needs to be planted in the proper space and given the proper care to look and perform its best. 


Close-up of an Athyrium niponicum plant in a forest under dappled sun. The leaves of Athyrium niponicum, commonly known as the Japanese painted fern, are delicate and finely divided, with a lance-shaped outline. They feature a graceful and feathery appearance, composed of multiple pairs of pinnae (leaflets) that are alternately arranged along the stem. The coloration is a striking combination of silvery-gray or metallic green with contrasting maroon midribs and veins.This plant thrives in partial morning sun, as excessive afternoon sunlight can cause fading and leaf damage.

In terms of sunlight, this fern has similar needs to other ferns. As an understory plant, the ideal light situation is partial morning sun. This variety is best known and beloved for its uniquely colorful leaves and stems. The colors are most vibrant and range from grey to blue to purple when not exposed to too much heat or sunlight. 

Too much harsh afternoon light will cause the foliage to fade. It can even burn if the light is too intense. While they can grow in nearly full shade, they will appreciate a few hours of morning sunlight when the exposure is cooler and less intense. 

Too much light and heat will scorch the delicate leaves, causing them to fade and dry out. Red tones will be the first colors affected by too much sun. If you notice the red tones fading, there is a good chance that it is getting too much exposure. 


Close-up of Athyrium niponicum plant leaves with water drops in the forest. The leaves of the Japanese painted fern are elegant and feathery with a lance-shaped structure, consisting of multiple leaflets on each side of the stem. The leaves are silvery-green with a purple tint.Maintain consistently moist, but not waterlogged, soil for a healthy fern.

Moist but not soggy soil is best for this fern. Keep your fern happy with consistently moist soil. Avoid waterlogged soil.

An underhydrated fern is more likely to suffer from sun overexposure than a hydrated one. However, a fern in soggy soil is susceptible to root rot. This is often a death sentence by the time you notice the damage. 


Close-up of fern frond in the garden. A fern frond consists of a main stem, with numerous smaller leaflets, arranged in a feathery structure. These leaflets have a finely divided or lobed appearance.These ferns can thrive in acidic soil with some moisture-holding capacity, ideally loamy soil.

They can thrive in more acidic soil than most plants can tolerate. It doesn’t need an exceptional amount of nutrients, but it does need soil that holds some moisture. Loamy soil with plenty of organic matter is ideal for this plant. 

Because the plant needs a soil type that holds some moisture, drainage is quite important. This is not the right plant for swampy soil. The roots are somewhat delicate, making them more susceptible to fungus and root rot. 

Temperature and Humidity

Close-up of an Athyrium niponicum plant growing among other plants in a garden, in the sun. Japanese painted fern boasts distinctive fronds with a fine, lacy structure featuring lance-shaped leaflets that are alternately arranged along a central stem, giving it a graceful, feathery appearance. The fronds exhibit a captivating coloration of silvery-gray, burgundy, and gree.It thrives in mild, humid conditions similar to their native woodland habitat.

Mild and humid climate conditions are most favorable. In its native environment, ferns are woodland understory plants. They will tolerate some warm weather as long as they have enough water and protection from the sun. 

These ferns are surprisingly cold-hardy, with roots that survive from zones 4-9 and even zone 3 under the right circumstances. Humidity is an important factor in this plant’s health, as it won’t tolerate arid climates. A 40-60% humidity level will keep your fern happy and healthy.


Close-up of an Athyrium niponicum leaf against a blurred foliage background. Up close, an Athyrium niponicum leaf reveals a finely textured and delicate structure. The individual leaflets are lance-shaped and intricately divided into smaller segments, creating a lacy, almost fern-like appearance. The leaflets exhibit a captivating coloration of silvery-gray, burgundy, and green, with a subtle silver overlay along the edges.Fertilization may be unnecessary if your soil is rich in organic matter and nutrients.

Japanese painted ferns are not heavy feeders and don’t need regular fertilization. If you have amended your soil or it already contains plenty of organic matter, you may not need to fertilize this plant at all. Nutrients will be easily available to the plant if the soil is rich and acidic enough.

If you decide to fertilize, you should only do so once yearly. You can fertilize with a single application with a slow-release, balanced fertilizer, such as a 10-10-10 formulation. Only fertilize once yearly in spring to encourage regrowth after the plant’s dormant period. 


Close-up of Athyrium niponicum plant with mulched soil. The plant produces elongated, branched leaves revealing a complex yet delicately structured composition. The leaflets exhibit a fine texture and are lance-shaped, featuring a remarkable array of colors including silvery-gray, burgundy, and green, with a hint of metallic or iridescent sheen. Stems are purple in color.Trim dead foliage for aesthetic purposes or remove diseased fronds for improved plant health.

This plant does not require pruning, although you may want to trim off the previous year’s dead foliage in spring, after the threat of frost has passed, and before the new foliage emerges. This is solely for aesthetic purposes, and leaving the old foliage intact will not injure the plant or inhibit new growth. 

If you notice any dead or diseased fronds throughout the growing season, it is perfectly fine to trim these away, as this will add to the overall attractiveness and health of the plant. Otherwise, they are low-maintenance and do not require any special care.

Growing in Containers

Close-up of leaves of the Athyrium niponicum plant hanging from a stone edging in the garden. Athyrium niponicum fronds reveal a stunningly intricate display of finely textured and delicately structured leaflets. These lance-shaped leaflets are exquisitely adorned with a captivating blend of colors, including silvery-gray, burgundy, and green. The stems are thin, graceful, purple in color.You can successfully grow them in pots by providing ample space, proper light, and exposure conditions.

Japanese painted ferns can be successfully grown in pots when provided with enough space, the right exposure, and light conditions. These ferns do not like to be root-bound, so choose a container slightly larger than the nursery pot to allow your plant some room to grow. 

The width of your container is more important than the depth, as these ferns do not have deep roots, but they do spread. A clay pot is a great tool for regulating soil moisture. I’m a big fan of standard terracotta pots because they create a good balance of moisture for outdoor plants and age nicely, too.


Close-up of a young japanese painted fern, in a pot on a white background. The plant has elongated fronds that showcase an intricate tapestry of lacy, lance-shaped leaflets arranged along the stem. The fronds display a mesmerizing blend of silvery-gray, burgundy, and green hues that seem to shimmer with a subtle iridescence.Spore propagation involves creating a sterile, humid environment, while division is a simpler method.

You can propagate by spores or division. Division is the less complicated method, but if you’re up for a challenge and have the time, propagating ferns with spores is a fascinating process and more than a little satisfying when you see those fern babies growing. 

Propagation from spores is a different process than from seed. It involves creating a specific environment that is sterile and humid and mimics the natural environment in which spores typically germinate. It requires a lot of patience, and your fern babies will need consistent moisture and humidity for several months before they can be planted.

Because of the complicated nature of propagating from spores, most ferns are propagated by division. This is a much simpler process that only requires the gardener to dig up the fern, separate a portion of the rhizome and the foliage attached, and plant them independently of the parent plant. 

There are a number of hybrid varieties of Japanese painted ferns. Some have been bred for exceptional color, others for size, and still more for hardiness properties. 

Burgundy Lace

Close-up of Athyrium niponicum var. Pictum 'Burgundy Lace' on a blurred background. Its fronds are finely textured and feathery, with a lance-shaped structure, and they exhibit a captivating combination of silvery-gray, burgundy, and green hues.This small to medium-sized fern produces silvery green leaves with permanent burgundy veining.

botanical name

Athyrium niponicum var. pictum ‘Burgundy Lace’
sun requirements

Partial to full shade

hardiness zones


‘Burgundy Lace’ is a small to medium-sized fern with a gorgeous color pattern. The new foliage emerges entirely a gorgeous garnet color. As they age, the leaves mature to a silvery green with a sheen to the surface, but the veining and midribs retain their burgundy color permanently. 

Crested Surf

botanical name

Athyrium niponicum ‘Crested Surf’
sun requirements

Partial to full shade

hardiness zones


‘Crested Surf’ is one of the more cold-tolerant varieties, with a tolerance all the way north to zone 3.

It has muted red stems, midribs, and veining on silvery green leaves. This variety also has the unique trait of double-crested frond tips, adding a more decorative air to the plant.


Close-up of Athyrium niponicum var. Pictum 'Godzilla'. Its fronts are lush, finely textured, and intricately lobed, forming a strikingly large and vigorous structure. The coloration features a rich blend of silvery-gray, burgundy, and green, with a bold and pronounced burgundy midrib running down the center.This large fern, with purple midribs and veining on green leaves, can reach up to three feet tall.

botanical name

Athyrium niponicum ‘Godzilla’
sun requirements

Partial to full shade

3’ tall and 5’-6’ spread
hardiness zones


This variety of epic proportions has stunning purple midribs and dusty green leaves. The purple extends into the veining of the individual leaves, making a very striking combination.

As you can probably deduce from the name, this is a large variety, reaching up to three feet tall with a spread twice its height. It is less cold-tolerant than some varieties but no less striking. 

Ursula’s Red

Close-up of Athyrium niponicum var. Pictum 'Ursula's Red' on a blurred background. Its fronds are finely textured and lance-shaped, exhibiting a remarkable combination of silvery-gray, burgundy, and green hues. This variety has a vibrant burgundy-red coloration that dominates the fronds, creating a visually striking contrast against the silvery-gray and green tones.‘Ursula’s Red’ is a compact fern with silvery-green leaves featuring red midribs and veining.

botanical name

Athyrium niponicum var. pictum ‘Ursula’s Red’
sun requirements

Partial to full shade

hardiness zones


A smaller variety, ‘Ursula’s Red’ has silvery-green foliage accented with deep red midribs and veining. The color of the foliage fades with age, becoming more silver and less green. This is a slow-growing fern, so it’s great for smaller spaces and won’t overcrowd quickly.

Common Problems

Close-up of a snail on a young fern leaf against a blurred background. A snail is a gastropod mollusk with a distinctive appearance characterized by a coiled, spiral-shaped shell on its back. It has a soft, slim body with a muscular foot used for locomotion.Ferns are generally resistant to pests and diseases, though occasional snails or slugs might be seen.

Japanese painted ferns are less susceptible to pests other than the occasional snail or slug. Most pests and other critters will typically avoid this plant. It is relatively disease-free.

The environmental issues that these and many other ferns face include root rot, which is most commonly the result of overwatering or poor drainage, and leaf scorch. Leaf scorch, sometimes called leaf scald or sunscald, results from too much sun, which burns the leaves. Scorched leaves mean it needs to be moved to a shadier spot. 

If the leaves appear faded with lighter areas, this is sunscald. If your leaves turn brown toward the edges, your fern probably needs more water. Ferns like moist soil, and without enough moisture, the ends of the frond will be the first place where this shows.

Frequently Asked Questions

They can, but they need to be placed in a cool, humid environment. Place your fern in a spot that gets dappled or indirect sunlight, and make sure the humidity stays above 50% around the plant.

No, it is a clumping grower that spreads rather slowly, so it is not considered invasive. This is an easy plant to manage and control the spread of.

Yes, deer don’t seem to have much of a taste for ferns in general, possibly because of their texture. They tend to avoid plants that are fuzzy, thorny, or floppy.

Final Thoughts

Japanese painted fern is a beautiful and low-maintenance addition to the shade garden. Where many plants refuse to grow, this fern thrives in cool, moist, and mostly shaded conditions. They make a beautiful border and mingle wonderfully with small flowering shade plants for added color and texture. 

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