If you’re like me, you find that plants come in and out of favor all the time. A few years ago, I was all over blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis, Zones 4–9), but now it’s like, blue grama who? Then there are those plants that never lose their appeal. Painted fern, from the genus Athyrium, is one of those for me. I never tire of seeing it in gardens; in fact, my appreciation seems boundless. In my garden, sporelings are pretty common, and I covet every one of them, especially the intrepid ones that find their way into crannies and other unexpected places. It’s not just the forms and colors but their dependability and versatility that are strengths of this fairly modest plant. When the Chicago Botanic Garden trial started, I was a novice where another group of Athyrium was concerned—the lady ferns. However, it took me about a minute to realize their charms; the few cultivars that we sampled only whet my appetite for more.
Painted ferns and lady ferns stand on their leafy merits alone, having no flowers to overshadow the feathery fronds. The lushly verdant lady ferns, however, are in marked contrast to the sage green, silver, red, and burgundy tones of the vibrant painted ferns. The delicateness of lady ferns’ fronds belies their stoutness. They are durable and hardy garden plants that can be cultivated throughout North America. My first impression of the painted and lady fern cultivars was that their distinguishing traits were perhaps too subtle. While that may hold true when viewed separately of each other, when grown together the cultivars were more distinct than expected. I admit that I was primed to like any and all of them, but there were definitely superior selections in the mix.
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