Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’ (Japanese Painted Fern)

Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’ on 6-9-12, Photo #98-41. (Sorry for the blurry photo. Every photo I took of this plant was blurry.)

Japanese Painted Fern

Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’

uh-THEE-ree-um  nip-ON-ih-kum  PIK-tum

Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit

Synonyms of Athyrium niponicum (16) (Updated on 10-16-21 from Plants of the World Online): Anisocampium niponicum (Mett.) Yea C.Liu, W.L.Chiou & M.Kato, Asplenium brevisorum Wall. ex Hook., Asplenium niponicum Mett., Asplenium uropteron Miq., Athyrium biondii Christ, Athyrium brevisorum Bedd., Athyrium fissum Christ, Athyrium matsumurae Christ ex Matsum., Athyrium niponicum var. pachyphlebium (C.Chr.) Kitag., Athyrium niponicum var. pictum (Maxwell) Fraser-Jenk.Athyrium pachyphlebium C.Chr., Athyrium silvestrii Christ, Athyrium uropteron (Miq.) C.Chr., Athyrium yunnanense Christ, Microchlaena yunnanensis (Christ) Ching, Dryopteris yunnanensis (Christ) Copel.

Athyrium niponicum (Mett.) Hance is the correct and accepted scientific name for this species of fern. It was named and described as such by Henry Fletcher Hance in the Journal of the Linnean Society in 1872 (or 1873). It was first named and described as Asplenium niponicum by Georg Heinrich Mettenius in Annales Musei Botanici Lugduno in 1866.

Athyrium niponicum var. pictum (Maxwell) Fraser-Jenk. is now considered a synonym of Athyrium niponicum. It was named and described as such by Christopher Roy Fraser-Jenkins in Fern Gazette in 1982. It was first named Athyrium goeringianum var. pictum by T.C. Max.

EVEN THOUGH the infraspecific name, Athyrium niponicum var. pictum, is not an “accepted” name at the moment, it was validly named and described according to the “rules” of taxonomy. The cultivar name ‘Pictum’ is commonly used for this variation and has been popular for many years.

The genus, Athyrium Roth, was named and described as such by Albrecht Wilhelm Roth in Tentamen Florae Germanicae in 1799.

Plants of the World Online by Kew still lists 198 species in the Athyrium genus (as of 10-16-21 when this page was last updated). It is “currently” a member of the plant family Aspleniaceae with 24 genera. Those numbers could change as updates are made on POWO.

I lived in Leland, Mississippi when I brought this plant home from Lowe’s in Greenville. The label on the pot said Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’. I suppose, since the “legit” accepted scientific name is Athyrium niponicum, you could give it a cultivar name based on the variety… In fact, there are many cultivar names of the species (or variation) such as  ‘Silver Falls’, ‘Burgundy Lace’, ‘Pewter Lace’, ‘Wildwood Twist’, ‘Red Beauty’ and ‘Ursula’s Red’.

I moved back to the family farm in west-central Missouri in February 2013 but I didn’t bring this plant with me. I really need to bring one home or get one (or more) online. Every photo I took of this plant was blurry no matter how many times I took it. GEEZ!

Once I moved back to Missouri in 2013, I had to change my blog name from the Mystical mansion and Garden to The Belmont Rooster. Basically, I started all over. Then this and that happened and I started the third blog in 2017. Well, all went well until the database I was using, The Plant List, got a little weird because it wasn’t updating. I contacted the editor and the reply I received was from the senior content editor of Kew (Royal Botanical Gardens). That was in 2017… He said The Plant List was no longer maintained, since version 1.1  in 2013 and gave me the link to Kew’s database called Plants of the World Online. When I first wrote this page in October 2017 I found the name for this plant had changed. Talk about a wild goose chase…

According to the 2013 Version of The Plant List, Anisocampium niponicum (Mett.) Y.C. Liu, W.L. Chiou & M. Kato “WAS” the correct and accepted name of the Japanese Painted Fern. It was described as such by Yea Chen Liu, Wen-Lang Chiou and Masahiro Kato in Taxon in 2011…

It was first named Asplenium niponicum Mett. and described by Georg Heinrich Mettenius in Annales Musei Botanici Lugduno in 1866. (The genus Asplenium L. was named and described by Carl von Linnaeus in Species Plantarum in 1753). The name was changed to Athyrium niponicum (Mett.) Hance when Henry Fletcher Hance described it as such in the Journal of the Linnean Society in 1973. Then someone decided it was synonymous with Athyrium brevisorum (Wall.) Bedd. which was indicated in the 2010 version of The Plant List. Of course, the author’s name for that species is different from one database to another but I am not going to get into that…

Apparently, due to a phylogenetic test that was done in 2011, it was discovered the Japanese Painted Fern is actually Anisocampium niponicum (Mett.) Y.C. Liu, W.L. Chiou & M. Kato.

Although the 2013 updated version of The Plant List says that the name of this plant changed to Anisocampium niponicum (which I never even heard of), I thought it was strange no other site changed to that name. SO, I had to check that out. Apparently, based on a phylogenetic analysis done in 2011, they found out this plant’s true history. However, no website is in agreement, not even the Missouri Botanical Garden’s website, which is Tropicos. Tropico’s and many other organizations contributed to The Plant List.

I sent an email to the editors of The Plant List because I noticed a misspelling of another plant. I quizzed them about The Plant List being outdated compared to other websites. I figured I would get no reply as usual, but surprisingly I did. I was told that The Plant List was no longer being maintained. But he did give me a link to a new website called Plants of the World Online which will apparently be maintained by KEW (a division of the Royal Botanical Garden). So, for curiosity, I typed in Anisocampium niponicum. It said “no results”. So, I typed in Athyrium brevisorum. Again it said “no results”. Well, that was in 2017 and this is now January 7, 2021 when I am updating this page for the, ummm, yes it has been three years since I updated this page.

As confusing as it is, the accepted scientific name is still Athyrium niponicum even though phylogenetic testing proved it was actually Anisocampium niponicum in 2011. That just goes to show you even though a DNA test is done it doesn’t mean the name will be accepted. That is a first for me… OH, and how many times has the family changed? Well, when I first wrote this page, the family name had changed to Woodsiaceae. Now, it is in the family Aspleniaceae (with Woodsiaceae one of the 8 synonyms) and some information says it isn’t supposed to be italicized…

Origin: Japan
Family: Currently in the Aspleniaceae
Zones: USDA Zones 4a-9b (one website said zone 3)
Size: 12-18” (+/-) x 12-18”
Soil: Average to rich, moist, well-drained soil.
Light: Part to full shade
Water: Average to moist
Maintenance: Low maintenance. May be trimmed to the ground after frost in the fall.
Uses: Shade garden, beds, borders.
Propagation: May be divided in the spring. Best to wait a few years so the plant can get well established.

I really like ferns and I need to get some. One popped up in the flower bed on the north side of the house in 2020 and I have no idea where it came from…

I hope you enjoyed this page and maybe found it useful. If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, I would like to hear from you. Please click on “like” if you visited this page. It helps us bloggers stay motivated. 🙂 You can check out the links below for further reading. The links take you directly to the genus and species of this plant (whatever they choose to call it).


8 comments on “Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’ (Japanese Painted Fern)

  1. David Goodfellow says:

    Don’t take it so hard. Names change – they are human inventions that may or may not reflect what is going on in the natural world (which we don’t know much about, anyway). The name Anisocampium seems to still be in dispute, and it isn’t ‘correct’ unless we say so. Chloroplast DNA analysis has certainly upended many of our assumptions about plant taxonomy, but it seems from a 2015 study referenced in the Wikipedia entry on Anthyrium that the change isn’t being accepted by everyone. Flora of China still uses it, I notice.

    Whatever. I was trained at Kew Gardens (now retired in France from teaching horticulture in Canada) and I still remember disputing some taxonomy in a study I did as a student. I said that a certain Lily probably shouldn’t have species status, but the prof, a taxonomist, wrote on it that it ‘already was one’, as if there was something absolute and ‘real’ about taxonomy. Reminds me of the dispute over writers like Kuhn (who came up with ‘paridigm shifts’ for scientific theories) by scientists who keep insisting that there is a real, concrete, external world that we can (one day) know ‘the truth’ about. I think that the world we conceive of is our brains ‘current best guess’ at the meaning of the sensory inputs it receives. There is no absolute truth.

    Anyway, this is a pretty fern, and for that matter, why is it ‘Japanese’ Painted Fern, since it also grows in China, Vietnam, Korea and India? For my money this is another oddity collected in Japan by gardeners there, and then brought over to Europe in one of the thousands of plant shipments sent by nurseries for a couple of centuries up to WWII. Old-time botanists always wanted to see everything as ‘natural’ and so loved botanic variety status. Today, not so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Goodfellow says:

      Looking at this a bit more, I realize that the dispute is really about whether Athyrium should be split into 3 genera or not – the 3 being Anisocampium, Cornopteris and a smaller Athyrium senso strictu. Typical taxonomists dispute – how wide a divergence will we allow in this particular genus before deciding to split it? Again, this is ultimately about human organization of knowledge, not plants and their nefarious ways.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, I still think it is odd that the results from testing aren’t being used for this species. So many names have changed as a result of testing, so why not this one?


        • David Goodfellow says:

          Yes, it is a bit, but as I say, it isn’t above taking or rejecting the DNA results, but were the lines should be drawn. Notice that most of the changes that have come from DNA over the years have been at the family level, less at genus level, and hardly ever at species level.

          Liked by 1 person

          • For this site, I have only noticed a few family names change. Several genera, but mostly on the species level. There have been several changes with wildflowers, but mostly in cactus and succulents. Luckily, my list is very short. I update every plant page at least once per year, but many of the pages are updated when I add more photos or I go to their page for some reason. I like to keep up-to-date the best I can.


    • Hello Mr. Goodfellow! Great to hear from someone who understands plant taxonomy. I used to quiz the senior content editor from Kew quite often but other than that I have taught myself. The internet has been a valuable tool but some of the information online is outdated. I use Plants of the World Online by kew for up-to-date scientific names and they make updates more often than most databases. The Plant List was taken over by WorldFlora Online but they uploaded out-of-date data (from 2013) and have STILL not updated. They were supposed to upload current data from POWO in 2020… Keeping up with name changes was a challenge for several years but the species on my site seem to be pretty much straightened out now. The change that I don’t like is when many of the intraspecific names became synonyms of the species when they indicate there are differences and they should be recognized. There are still many accepted infraspecific names and hopefully, more will become accepted again in the future. I still use infraspecific names on my site, sometimes in parenthesis, to indicate it is different from the species. I still have a lot of questions and sometimes the answers I get don’t satisfy my curiosity… I may be contacting you. Take care and thanks for your comment!


      • David Goodfellow says:

        Yes, the trend in taxonomy for a long time now has been to submerge all those intraspecific differences in the species. Think about how collecting actually works. Someone goes out into an area, and looks for something different that they don’t already recognize. The human tendency is to pick up something ‘odd’ and later it became glorified with a variety epithet, subspecies, or whatever. The problem is that individual variation within a species can be broad – we don’t separate humans on things like how tall they are, how fat, how many freckles, what color their eyes are, etc. Yet that is basically what all these var. names do. That is why they have been mostly converted into cultivar names (var pictum = ‘Pictum’). I agree with this trend. Botanists are looking at broader things, not the details that entertain we gardenersd

        Liked by 1 person

        • I understand what you are saying about species being variable. There are a few species on the farm that used to drive me nuts. I just resorted to using “sp.” rather than trying to figure out the species name. I can understand using a cultivar name for plants grown in “captivity” that have been tinkered with. The label for this fern did say Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’ so that is in line with what you are saying. I really should work on this page a bit. 🙂


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