Perennial Plant of the Year
Martha Maletta, Home Horticultural Consultant
Dated - January 7, 2004

In my garden it’s a winner if for no other reason than the deer have never touched it. But it has a lot more to recommend it, and that is why the Perennial Plant Association (PPA) has chosen Japanese painted fern ‘Pictum’ as its 2004 Perennial Plant of the Year.

The Association, a trade group founded in 1984 to promote the improvement and production of herbaceous perennial plants, selects an annual winner. These are not necessarily new plants, but plants deemed worthy by Association members (who include professional growers, retailers, educators, and other horticultural professionals) of promotion because of their usefulness over a wide climate range, low maintenance needs, ease of propagation and long-season of interest.

Japanese painted fern ‘Pictum’ (Athyrium nipponicum ‘Pictum’) is a delicately variegated silvery-gray- green, fine-textured fern with reddish stems that grows in loose clumps of arching leaves. As with many ferns, it belongs in the partial to full shade garden where it will thrive given a well-drained but moist soil amended with compost or other organic matter. (In my experience it will also tolerate some drought.) Best color develops in partial to light shade. It is reported suitable for all climates except desert and northern Zone 3.

Annual topdressing with compost and light fertilization, along with adequate water, are all that are needed to maintain Japanese painted fern. It has no reported serious diseases or insect susceptibilities. In my experience, Japanese beetles that have feasted on ostrich fern in my landscape have not touched the painted fern. The only problem I’ve encountered was physical damage from an over-zealous landscape maintenance crew working at the edge of my neighbor’s property in mid-summer. But, it wasn’t long before new fronds appeared, and the plants looked close to normal by early fall.

Painted fern ‘Pictum’ is a good companion for many shade garden plants. The PPA suggests these: hosta (except in deer territory!); foam flower (Tiarella); certain sedges (Carex); Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla); astilbe; bleeding heart. I have used it in beds of myrtle (Vinca minor) to provide some warm season interest. The texture, color and growth habit make it a valuable design element for the shade garden. Propagation for the home gardener is best done by divisions taken in spring or fall.

For complete information about and photographs of this and other PPA Plant of the Year winners, visit the Association website at

Some other ferns that are listed as “rarely damaged” in the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet “Landscape Plants Rated by Deer Resistance” are: holly fern, Cyrtomium falcatum; hayscented fern, Dennstaedtia punctilobula; wood fern, Dryopteris marginalis; ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris; sensitive fern, Onoclea sensibilis; cinnamon fern, Osmunda cinnamomea; Christmas fern, Polystichum arcostichoides; New York fern, Thelyptens noveboracensis. This Fact Sheet is available at the RCE website, ( or by SASE from RCE of Hunterdon County, P.O. Box 2900, Flemington, NJ, 08822.