Shady Characters: Plants that Grow in Shade

1 / 4
Impatiens edge a few of Margaret’s shade-friendly garden spots.
2 / 4
A unique plant stand holds an Escargot begonia.
3 / 4
Delicate petals highlight a martagon lily.
4 / 4
A few shady favorites work well in boggy areas, too.

Many folks despair of what to do with their landscape’s shady areas, not even considering the plants that grow in shade. Sure, we all know about the beauty of bright red gerberas, gaillardias, coneflowers and geraniums, but what do you do when your beds just aren’t sufficiently sunny to allow those winners to thrive? I lamented our own lack of sunny beds until I met Clayton Oslund many years ago. Founder of Shady Oaks Nursery in Waseca, Minnesota, Oslund is fond of saying, “Shade presents an opportunity, not a problem, in the landscape.” For many years, the Shady Oaks catalog was my bible as I planted perennial gardens in our wooded grounds. Now strictly a wholesale nursery, Shady Oaks is owned by Clayton’s son, Gordon, who follows his father’s philosophy.

“Shade gardening, to me, is all about foliage color, shapes, sizes and textures,” says Gordon Oslund. “Mixing foliage colors of gold, blue, green and variegated types brightens up a shady place, and the mix of colors gives a calming effect to the garden. Mixing large-leaved plants with those of fine texture creates interest throughout the growing season. And it’s much more comfortable gardening in the shade versus the hot sun.”

The Shady Oaks catalog divides shade into five categories from zero, for plants that perform well in full sun as well as in occasional shade, to category 4 – heavy shade. Barbara Ellis, author of Shady Retreats, a book that offers 20 plans for colorful private spaces in your backyard, differentiates more generally from full sun to partial shade to full shade.

“Partial shade is where all the gradations appear,” Ellis says. “The biggest difference for gardeners, there is morning sun versus afternoon sun. A site that gets morning sun is still fine for an awful lot of plants that need full shade because you don’t get the hot sun in the afternoon.” She suggests gardeners take notes as to where the sun is in their yards on any given day in the growing season.

Today, our perennial beds in Minnesota are a collage of color and texture with plumes of pink and white astilbe and taller goat’s beard, mounds of smooth-leaved bergenia, bold stands of hostas and spires of gold above toothed foliage of the Rocket ligularia. In early spring, tiny blooms of tiarella contrast with shiny European ginger and large white trillium flowers while martagon lilies and white bleeding heart add interest. White Nancy lamium, Lamiastrum galeobdolon, and golden moneywort edge the gardens. Tuberous begonias and coleus add color later in the season along with
impatiens I start from seed.

Defining light shade

Gordon describes “open” shade as the brightest type produced by open-branched trees like honey locust or larch.

“Tiny patches of sunlight flicker across the ground, but the plants aren’t exposed to direct sunlight for any extended period of time,” he says. “Lathwork over a patio can provide this type of shade.” Sometimes these areas receive morning sun, but the plants are protected from the intense afternoon sun. For such areas, Oslund’s favorites are Hosta, ‘Stained Glass’; Heuchera, ‘Encore’; Yucca, ‘Color Guard’; Iris pseudacorus, ‘Variegata’; and the ornamental grass Calamagrostis x acutiflora, ‘Overdam.’

With little or no direct sunlight, the next category for Oslund is called “light” shade, and here there is only bright light. He finds such spots on the northeast or northwest sides of buildings or under single tall trees with a heavy canopy of leaves. Here he would plant Hosta, ‘Sagae’; Heuchera, ‘Caramel’; a Japanese grass called Hakonechloa macra, ‘Aureola’; Pulsatilla vulgaris, ‘Purple’; and Aruncus dioicus (Giant goat’s beard).

Alice Longfellow, owner of Longfellow’s Garden Center in Centertown, Missouri, in Zone 6, lists foxglove, tricyrtis and serviceberry at the top of her list for light shade.

Planting in medium shade

Our bog garden probably qualifies as an area of “medium” shade since it’s beneath a canopy of tall trees with overhanging branches. Here Ligularia, ‘Britt Marie Crawford’ thrives along with Cimicifuga, ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ and Brunnera, ‘Jack Frost.’ Cimicifuga, ‘White Pearl’ also blooms late in the season in medium shade. Another of our shade gardens where the soil is drier has several varieties of pulmonaria such as Raspberry Splash and Bertram Anderson.

“Medium shade is the most exciting place for gardening,” says Longfellow. “You can grow most any shade plant here. You are forced to work with leaf colors and textures, yet you can still add color from impatiens and begonias.” Among Longfellow’s favorites for medium shade are crested iris, astilbe, brunnera, hakonechloa, oakleaf hydrangea, torenia and hostas. Some of the hardy geraniums are great for dappled shade, and Heuchera, ‘Chocolate Ruffles’ holds its intense color there. Astilbe, ‘Sprite’ goes into medium to rather heavy shade. In addition to lovely pink flowers, the plant makes an ideal ground cover because of its shiny foliage.

Although hostas are one of the most popular and dependable of shade plants, Keith Wiley warns in his book, Shade: Ideas and Inspiration for Shady Gardens, against using too many single hostas of different varieties in one bed. Instead he suggests planting them in groups of three, and when using variegated hostas, choosing a color range that will link to neighboring plants. We’ve tried to achieve this effect with Wide Brim and Gold Standard hostas along with the Rocket ligularia, gold moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia) and chartreuse feverfew. Another bed combines blue-tinged hosta regal with a white bleeding heart (Dicentra alba), White Nancy lamium and White Gloria astilbes. A dwarf astilbe serves as excellent ground cover, growing only 12 inches tall and spreading. Astilbe chinensis pumila produces soft pink flowers in late summer.

A few for heavy shade

Only a few plants will tolerate heavy shade where light is obscured by a thick stand of trees with branches close to the ground or areas under stairways or decks on the north side of the house. Among plants you might try here are Hosta x tardiana, ‘Halcyon’; lady fern; leatherwood fern; Pachysandra terminalis; and Hedera helix, ‘Wilson’s ivy.’

Longfellow describes heavy shade as “the place on the north side of the house where sunlight hasn’t been seen for years and where you can’t get anything to grow but moss and ivy.” She concedes that ginger works well in these areas, and even hostas don’t do too
badly. Hellebores are one of the few plants that will bloom in heavy shade, but some spring ephemerals like primulas and a few woodland wildflowers grow there because they flower early before the trees leaf out.

Difficult dry shade

“The most difficult thing is dry shade,” Ellis says. “That’s the hardest set of circumstances, and it’s caused by tree roots that take up an awful lot of moisture. You can also encounter dry shade in the lee of the house under the eaves.”

For such spots, she recommends epimediums, delicate plants with fleeting flowers in spring and green leaves for the rest of the season. Other perennials that tolerate dry shade are Lamiastrum galeobdolon, ‘Hermann’s Pride,’ a plant that forms neat mounds and blooms with tiny yellow flowers; any of the lamiums; false lamium (Lamiastrum galeobdolon, ‘Variegatum’); and Vinca minor (may become invasive). Pulmonarias (lungworts) also grow in dry shade, as do Solomon’s seal, bigroot geranium, wood spurge, lily-of-the-valley, autumn fern and yellow corydalis.

“Moisture levels are a very important factor in growing plants in the shade, at least here in Missouri,” Longfellow says. “My solution is to lighten the area as much as possible by limbing up trees, thinning the canopy or even removing a few trees. The more light, the better chance plants will have to compete with tree roots.” Among her favorites to compete with roots are drought-tolerant plants like coral bells, hellebores, epimedium, crested iris, anemone, microbiota, plum, cephalotaxus, nandina, wahoo, dogwood and serviceberry.

Shady shrubs

The best shrubs for shade in our yard are Hydrangea arborescens, ‘Annabelle’; Japanese yew; common elderberry; and red osier dogwood. Annabelle has produced her large, showy blooms for 30 years on the north side of our house, and I’ve succeeded in rooting stem cuttings to produce many new plants year after year. Elderberry bushes grow everywhere on the property attracting robins and other birds to their bright red berries in late summer and early fall. Blueberry bushes provide lovely spring flowers, delicious summer fruit and bright fall foliage.

Other flowering shrubs that tolerate shade are rhododendrons, azaleas, juneberry (Amelanchier canadensis), viburnums and dogwood. In more southerly zones, camellias, bottlebrush buckeye, eastern redbud, sweet bay magnolia, corylopsis and euonymus grow in light to medium shade.

Woodland wildflowers

Many shade plants are natives of woodlands, so a trip to the forest will suggest some possibilities for your shade garden. Several wildflowers thrive in our shadiest spot. Wild ginger spreads rapidly and makes a good ground cover, but it can become invasive. Trilliums are first to blossom early in the spring, as well as bloodroot with its lovely, palm-like leaves and tiny yellow, blue and white violets. Next come Solomon’s seal and starflower. Framing these wildflowers are the vase-like forms of cinnamon fern and the wiry black stems and delicate fronds of maidenhair fern.

Other parts of the country have different wildflowers, so gardeners need only study the landscape in their region to determine which of these plants might work best in their own shady beds. For example, Tiarella wherryi is native to the woodlands of the southeastern United States whereas Virginia bluebells thrive in Maryland floodplains and dogtooth violets (Erythronium americanum) prefer the cooler conditions beneath manzanita bushes in southern Oregon.

Adding color

Impatiens, tuberous or wax begonias, coleus, browallia, torenia and caladiums in containers add a bright spot of color to shady glens and are ideal for dry areas where tree roots rob moisture from plants. Set a pot amidst a sea of false lamium or other ground cover. Most plants with colored foliage tend to be paler than identical plants growing in full sun. Likewise, variegation is not always reliable in shady conditions.

Flowers and vibrant foliage aren’t the only solutions for adding color to the shade garden. Consider ornaments of all kinds – watering cans, birdhouses, sculptures, folk art, whirligigs, gazing balls or a still life combining several elements. Benches, stones, comfortable Adirondack chairs or hammocks offer a place to pause and enjoy the shady garden while they add ambience to the peaceful setting. Trellises, pergolas or gazebos provide height, while paths and fences divide one area from another and contribute much to a garden.

A fountain’s flowing water can catch a glint of light illuminating a shade garden. For winter interest, consider incorporating plants with seed pods like baptisia, or leave ornamental grasses standing to add motion to the landscape.

Shade gardens offer gardeners a cool refuge, a place to escape from daily cares and concerns and find privacy, intimacy and quiet. Here, gardeners can relax, contemplate and appreciate the scene they’ve worked so hard to create.  

Tips for plants that grow in shade:

  • Thin or “limb up” your trees to change an area from heavy shade to medium shade.
  • Use spots of color or containers.
  • Put your brighter colors in more open areas.
  • Keep your color in strategic places.
  • Fertilize with twice as much phosphorus as nitrogen for more flowers.
  • Plant in pockets underneath trees and amend only the area under each plant.
  • Don’t overuse variegated plants.
  • Incorporate annuals like impatiens, fibrous begonias, coleus, caladiums, torenia and dwarf nicotiana for color.
  • Mix textures.
  • Plant in groups.
  • Combine different heights.

List of plants that grow in shade:

Darmera peltata
Wildflowers: Bloodroot, Trillium, Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum), Shooting star (Dodecatheon)
Iris cristata
Foamflower (Tiarella)
Coral bells (Heuchera)
Bugleweed (Ajuga)
Vinca minor
Bleeding heart (Dicentra)
Goat’s beard (Aruncus)
Lamiastrum, ‘Herman’s Pride’ and
L. galeobdolon, ‘Variegatum’
Martagon lily
Ginger (Asarum)
Lysimachia nummularia, ‘Aurea’
Barrenwort (Epimedium)
Lungwort (Pulmonaria)
Corydalis lutea
Siberian bugloss (Brunnera)
Baneberry (Actaea)
Masterwort (Astrantia)
Ligularia, ‘The Rocket,’ ‘Othello,’ ‘Desdemona,’ Ligularia japonica
Toad lily (Tricyrtis hirta)
Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium)
Stachys ‘Big Betony’
Turtlehead (Chelone)
Meadow rue (Thalictrum)
Bugbane or snakeroot (Cimicifuga)
Ferns – Japanese painted, maidenhair, cinnamon, lady
Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum)
Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis)
Joe Pye-weed (Eupatorium)
Meadowsweet (Filipendula palmate)
Queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra)
Lilyturf (Liriope) 

Sources for plants that grow in shade:

Savory’s Gardens
5300 Whiting Ave.
Edina, MN 55439

North Wind Horticulture
P.O. Box 3224
Duluth, MN 55803

Plant Delights Nursery
9241 Sauls Road
Raleigh, NC 27603

Hostas Direct
19 Mid Oaks Road
Roseville, MN 55113

Green Hill Farm
P.O. Box 16306
Chapel Hill, NC 27516

Native American Seed (wildflowers)
Junction, TX 76849

Klehm’s Song Sparrow Perennial Farm
13101 E. Rye Road
Avalon, WI 53505

Wildseed Farms (wildflowers)
100 Legacy Drive
P.O. Box 3000
Fredericksburg, TX 78624

Margaret Haapoja fills her home garden in Bovey, Minnesota, with these varieties and more.