There have long been handsome fern species, but in the past few years, growers have introduced spectacularly beautiful ferns with more colors than green. Here are five of my favorites.
Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. Pictum)
Adored for its silver foliage, the Japanese painted fern has silver fronds with purple and magenta leaf centers that give it an extraordinary refinement. It grows to about 12 inches and the same across, and in a massing provides a splash of color that lasts from April to October. There are a number of named varieties, although several are not much different from the parent. Here are some worth seeking out: Regal Red, which has a burgundy red center and grows to 20 inches, and Godzilla, a particularly robust selection that grows to 24 inches or higher.
Ghost fern (Athyrium x Ghost)
Ghost is a selection from the suburban Richmond garden of the late Nancy Sweet and is probably a natural hybrid of the Japanese painted fern and the European lady fern. It is gray-green and exhibits extraordinary vigor, growing to two feet high. It is superb for lighting up a dark corner of the garden. With some shade and constant moisture, it retains a freshness through the summer. My absolute favorite fern.
Autumn fern Brilliance (Dryopteris erythrosora Brilliance)
The autumn fern is one of a few evergreen ferns, and its new growth in the spring is coppery red. The variety Brilliance retains that ornament through the growing season as new fronds continue to appear. It is magnificent.
Dixie wood fern (Dryopteris x australis)
This is a natural hybrid of two wood fern species. Gardeners love it for its vigor; it grows to four feet or more while not outgrowing its space.
Northern maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum)
Tall and with showy curving fronds, this fern has a sculptural quality that makes it perfect to grow close to where it will be seen and enjoyed, perhaps next to a shaded patio. The maidenhair fern needs attentive watering in summer when first planted and space to expand unimpeded, but its foliar swirls are among the most beguiling leaf patterns of all plants in the garden. The Southern species has its own delicacy but is not as architectural in habit.