Although many people think otherwise, there is no paucity of plants to grow in the shade. There are a plethora of ferns, both native and Asian, that can be used. I think that one of the greatest additions to the fern palette is Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’ with its silvery foliage that lights up dark spots, even full shade.
In 2004, it was named Plant of the Year by the Perennial Plant Assocation. It is a very showy fern, the fronds of which glint with shades of burgundy and green as well as silver. The best frond color appears in light shade and the colors are more intense in the spring when cooler temperatures prevail.
Hardy to zone 5, this fern grows twelve to eighteen inches tall and, in loamy soil with consistent moisture, eventually forms a two foot wide clump which requires no maintenance. Some of the cousins mentioned below seem to be a zone or two hardier.
Since then, some interesting cultivars have been introduced. Athyrium ’Regal Red’ is the same size as ‘Pictum’ but has stems that are more intensely purply-red with the color flushing into the center of the fronds. Athyrium ‘Pictum Applecourt’ can grow a bit taller but is distinguished by the heavy cresting at the end of each pinna (leaflet). Its coloring is the exact opposite of an apple. On a Granny Smith apple, the outer part is green and the interior is white. On this fern, the interior part of the pinna is green and the rest of the pinna is silvery white.
Athyrium ’Ghost’, a clumping hybrid of A.niponicum and A. filix-femina is twice as large as ‘Pictum’ (usually two feet high and wide), is rigidly upright, and very silver. Even taller is the newest introduction, ‘Godzilla’ that will grow three feet tall and eventually six feet wide with sufficient moisture. it has arching fronds that are silvery with green highlights and dark purple stems.
These painted ferns provide a wonderful textural contrast to bolder-leaved, shade-loving perennials such as Hosta, Heuchera (Coral Bells), Brunnera (Heartleaf Forget-Me-Not), and Symphytum (Comfrey) and to grassy plants like the sedges which are so useful in the shade. Try pairing them with Carex morrowii ‘Ice Dance’ that has green and white foliage or Carex glauca which has blue-gray foliage. They also combine well with the white flowers of Impatiens or Astilbe, with Dicentra spectabilis (Common Bleeding Heart) or Aquilegia (Columbine).
All of these ferns can be planted in dry or moist soil although regular watering for the first year will be needed for them to get established. Naturally, they will grow faster if given supplemental water. Best performance will be achieved with the addition of loose, organic matter to the soil. As an added bonus, deer will ignore these ferns.