“Bloom where you’re planted” may be the mantra for some, but for gardeners living under a canopy of mature shade trees, this seems easier said than done. Finding perennials to add color to the shade can be a challenge. Shade gardeners may sometimes feel restricted in terms of showy flowers or bright colors, but with a bit of searching, gardeners can find many excellent plant choices to create a rich, textured shade garden.
White flowers are a good choice to brighten shady sites. For white flowers in early spring, mix in white old-fashioned bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis ‘Alba’). Like the pink-flowering bleeding heart, white bleeding heart forms a spreading clump, about 2½ feet in height. Unlike our native fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia), which continues to bloom with light pink flowers on and off through the summer, old-fashioned bleeding heart blooms only in spring, then goes dormant in summer.
For another white-blooming shade-lover, try goat’s beard (Aruncus dioicus). Goat’s beard can be a prominent figure in the perennial border, growing from 4 to 6 feet in height. The airy, creamy-white flowers (showiest on the male plants) bloom in early summer. The ferny foliage will add structure and foliage interest through the season. Goat’s beard can be an excellent companion for bleeding hearts; the bleeding heart takes the stage while it’s in bloom, then the goat’s beard fills in once the bleeding heart foliage dies back. Dwarf goat’s beard (Aruncus aethusifolius) works well in the front of the border, where it forms a dense clump of textured foliage under a foot in height.
Astilbes are perfect for shady gardens, offering the best opportunity to bring dramatic colors into the shade. Astilbes have been heavily hybridized, so that a large assortment of colors and sizes are available on the market. ‘Montgomery’ blooms dark red, ‘Bridal Veil’ is a popular white-blooming astilbe, and ‘Sister Theresa’ has large, salmon-pink flowers. ‘Sprite’ astilbe (Astilbe simplicifolia ‘Sprite’) is a charming dwarf astilbe with dark, glossy leaves and pink blooms. ‘Sprite’ is a good choice for the front of the perennial border, and also makes an attractive ground cover.
Peony is another sun-loving perennial that can adapt to dappled or light shade. As with Siberian iris, peonies will not bloom as heavily in shade, but can still be good additions to a garden with light or dappled shade. Hundreds of peony cultivars are available in white, cream, light yellow, pink, crimson and maroon, with bloom times ranging from late spring to early summer. Most peonies need to be staked or caged to prevent flowers from flopping over, especially after heavy rains. Look for ‘Festiva Maxima,’ an early blooming, fragrant double flowering white peony with flecks of red in the petals.
No shade garden would be complete without foamflowers or tiarellas (Tiarella cordifolia). These woodland natives are undemanding when properly sited (in rich, moist soils), and add interesting flowers and foliage. Delicate, foamy white and light pink flowers bloom in spring over attractive, maplelike foliage, which expands as the flowers peak. Numerous tiarella cultivars are available with interesting foliage: ‘Tiger Stripe’ has red veins and a central red stripe; ‘Slickrock’ has deeply cut, dark green leaves; and ‘Spring Symphony’ produces dozens of foamy flower spikes that start off light pink, held over finely cut green leaves with black midribs.
Rarely in the plant world do we see crosses between plants in separate genera, but breeders have made crosses between tiarellas and heucheras (coral bells), commonly called heucherellas. This unusual circumstance has given gardeners plants with bloom characteristics of coral bells and foliage characteristics of foamflowers. ‘Pink Frost’ is a selection with pink flowers on 2-foot stalks. In full bloom, heucherellas are show-stoppers.
To make the best use of shade-loving perennials, consider not just how plants look when in bloom, but the color and texture the foliage can add to the garden throughout the season. Pulmonarias, for example, are striking when they bloom with blue, pink or white flowers in spring. For the rest of the summer, pulmonarias add interest with rough-textured leaves edged or spotted with silver to brighten up the garden.
With its height and structure, variegated Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’) is an excellent perennial for the back of the shady border. This arching perennial reaches 2 to 3 feet in height and spreads through rhizomes to form a dense clump. White flowers bloom in spring, but it’s the white-edged leaves that add interest all summer long. Once established, Solomon’s seal can tolerate dry soils.
Most of the plants mentioned here prefer moist conditions (and most demand afternoon shade), but a few — like Solomon’s seal and lamium — can thrive in dry shade. Lamium, also known as spotted dead nettle, will bloom and spread in shade, making it an excellent ground cover without being invasive. ‘White Nancy’ is a popular white-blooming lamium with silver and green foliage. ‘Purple Dragon’ has silver foliage tipped in green with vibrant purple flowers.
To further brighten a shady spot, plant the lamium cultivar ‘Anne Greenaway.’ This cultivar blooms in mauve over striking foliage in shades of light and dark green, silver and chartreuse. Lamium can be sheared back after blooming to encourage compacted plants, and will often reseed if soil conditions are right. (Warning gardeners: purple deadnettle is a winter annual that many gardeners mistake for lamium. While this weed is reminiscent of lamium, its flowers are much smaller, and it will soon die in its bed. Pull it now to avoid leaving seeds behind that will grow this fall.)
These plants are only the tip of the iceberg; many other perennials will bring color and texture to the shade garden. Epimedium, heuchera, brunnera, lady’s mantle and hellebore all provide lovely flowers as well as interesting foliage. And then there are all the outstanding foliage plants that go way beyond green, like ‘Great Expectations’ hosta, ‘Ghost’ lady fern and ‘Pictum’ Japanese painted fern. So take heart, shade gardener: much more than green can be part of your palate to paint the shady landscape.
Denise Ellsworth directs the honeybee and native pollinator education program for the Ohio State University. If you have questions about caring for your garden, contact her at 330-263-3700 or click on the Ask Denise link on her blog at www.osugarden.com.