En EspaŅol

Q. Who is Mr. Smarty Plants?

A: There are those who suspect Wildflower Center volunteers are the culpable and capable culprits. Yet, others think staff members play some, albeit small, role. You can torture us with your plant questions, but we will never reveal the Green Guru's secret identity.

Help us grow by giving to the Plant Database Fund or by becoming a member

Did you know you can access the Native Plant Information Network with your web-enabled smartphone?


Ask Mr. Smarty Plants

Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Search Smarty Plants
See a list of all Smarty Plants questions
Can't find the answer in our existing FAQs, submit a question to Mr. Smarty Plants.
Need help with plant identification, visit the plant identification page.
rate this answer
1 rating

Monday - June 16, 2008

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Compost and Mulch, Ferns
Title: Decline of Japanese ferns in Austin
Answered by: Barbara Medford


I've enjoyed beautiful Japanese ferns in my shaded garden for about ten years. They are looking spent and straggly, despite fish emulsion, compost,and lots of mulch and soaker hose watering in the summer. Should I give up on these old friends, and replant fresh ferns? Plant something else? Please help a puzzled gardener.


The first thing we had to sort out was which fern is the "Japanese fern" you're referring to. When we searched on "Japanese fern", we got these websites:

Kemper Center for Home Gardening Athyrium niponicum var. "Pictum"

Perennial Plant Association Athyrium niponicum var. "Pictum"

Hardy Fern Library Osmunda Japonica

Pictures of Osmunda Japonica

Pictures of Athyrium niponicum

When we searched on "Japanese painted fern" we found another called Anthurium niponicum var. "Pictum" on this Gardening Made Easy site Japanese painted fern. And when we looked at our own native ferns, the genus is Osmunda, as in Osmunda cinnamomea (cinnamon fern). It would appear that the Anthurium niponicum is the accepted scientific name for the Japanese painted fern; that is, until they change it again.

The pictures, descriptions and care instructions on these all looked really similar, and we finally concluded that some committee somewhere, in its infinite wisdom, changed the Genus name from Athyrium to Osmunda, or vice versa.

So, having performed this exercise of trying to find out what we're talking about, we found no real reason for your ferns, whatever they are, to be feeling out of sorts. As best we can tell, you are doing everything right in caring for them, moist soil, compost and mulch, and so forth. We could find nowhere any indication of a normal lifespan for a fern, except that the Japanese ferns were slow-growing, and you would infer from that they were also long-lived. Frankly, we would give them another year to recover before we gave up on them. Read all the information in the websites we have linked you to, looking for pests and diseases, etc. It has been a very harsh, hot, dry Spring in Austin, so perhaps a little more shade and a little more water might help them perk up. And, being trimmed back at the appropriate season helps most plants regenerate. Trim your ferns back hard in the Fall when they begin to close up for the Winter, and hopefully, they will rise again.




More Compost and Mulch Questions

Is cement leaching into flower beds in Colorado Springs?
May 16, 2009 - I have posed this question to a number of garden centers in our area around Colorado Springs--only to rec. a repeated--"Gee, I don't know." When we moved to our new home there was a rock concrete ...
view the full question and answer

Ground cover under trees from Austin
November 03, 2012 - I need ground cover plants that can tolerate leaf litter and grow under oak tree shade.
view the full question and answer

Removal of invasive horsetail in Shelby Township, MI
June 19, 2009 - Please help me or direct me to who may be able to help. I have horsetail (Equisetum) invading my Blue Rug Juniper. Please tell me what I can use to get rid of the horsetail (Equisetum) without killi...
view the full question and answer

Ailing Tecoma stans from Phoenix AZ
August 24, 2012 - I have several young Tecoma plants in my Phoenix, AZ garden. I planted them in June and have tended to them over the summer. They are watered twice daily. On some of the plants, I've noticed two oddi...
view the full question and answer

Smaller trees for limited space in yard in Austin
March 29, 2011 - Follow up to "I have a choice of three shade trees from the city of Austin. They are Live Oak, Elm, Cedar. Although I am happy to have a free tree, I think the choices are not the best for my home. I...
view the full question and answer

Smarty Plants's Facebook profile Support the Wildflower Center by Donating Online or Becoming a Member today.

Mr. Smarty Plants wants you to be his Facebook friend. Click the Facebook icon to add yourself to Mr. Smarty Plants list of friends.
© 2015 Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center