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Winning the Battle: Perennials That Thrive in Shade

Learn which perennials thrive in shade.

Contributors: Susan Martin

If you live in an established neighborhood where towering trees abound, you know all too well the challenges and opportunities of gardening in shade.  If you’re like me, you’ve experimented a bit to see just what will grow under those trees and you know where the pockets of precious sunshine fall on summer afternoons.  Not all shade is created equal when it comes to growing plants.  You can read more about that here.  While some perennials tolerate shade, others thrive in it. Take heart--no matter what kind of shade you’re gardening under, there is a perennial that will grow there.  Here are five kinds of perennials that will thrive in your shade garden.

HOSTAS

Let’s list this one first since it is typically the first perennial that comes to mind when you think of shade gardens.  It’s for good reason—hostas absolutely love shade. Indeed, they languish in the hot afternoon sun so your shady landscape will provide them just the right conditions.

However, hostas also like to have a fairly consistent supply of moisture to flush out their big, beautiful canopy of foliage, so planting hostas in hard, dry clay under your trees is not ideal.  Amend your soil when planting hostas to give them nutrient rich, loamy earth in which to spread their extensive roots. Taking the time and effort to do so will benefit your hostas much more than planting them in poor soil and having to douse them with fertilizer every month to compensate for the poor soil.

Hostas grow well in all but the warmest parts of the country as they are hardy in zones 3-9. However, they are one of the favorite foods of deer, so if you have these four legged friends in your garden you may wish to look further down this list for other perennials you can grow in shade.

Recommended Hostas:

  • Autumn Frost’—One of the very best hostas for spring color, its frosty blue and radiant gold edged leaves will light up your landscape and containers with exuberant color.
  • Empress Wu’—Would be more aptly named “Impress You” since this enormous green hosta will surely impress all your friends when it reaches its mature size of 3-4ft tall by 5-6ft wide in about five years.
  • ‘Wheee!’—What hosta could be more fun with a name like this?  Its extremely rippled foliage is something you’ll just want to reach out and touch, and when you do you’ll be impressed by its thick leaf substance. The slugs won’t be so impressed and will move on to easier fodder.

LIGULARIA

From the most common shade perennial, Hosta, we move on to an underused but equally deserving shade perennial called Ligularia. If you’re looking for bold texture and great flowers for partial shade conditions, this is it.  Ligularia forms a large, dense mass of ornamental, toothed leaves that are the consistency of leather so you know you won’t have to worry about deer eating this durable perennial.

Most Ligularias, like ‘Bottle Rocket’, have dark green leaves, but a few cultivars like ‘Britt-Marie Crawford’ have dark purple foliage.  The green leafed types typically produce brilliant yellow flower spikes in midsummer, while the dark foliage types often produce golden orange, daisy-shaped flowers in late summer.

Regardless of which type of Ligularia you’re growing, you’ll want to choose a partially shaded location in which to plant it. It will be right at home at the edges of ponds and streams where its roots can sink deep into that rich, cool, moist soil below.  Consistent moisture is key to growing great looking clumps of Ligularia. If you have sandy or dry soil, you’ll want to amend it with nutrient rich, organic components when you plant it and choose a site that is shaded in the afternoon.  Ligularia is hardy in zones 4-9.

FOAMFLOWERS (Tiarella)

If you garden in shade, you’ve come to understand the importance of great foliage and texture as it is often these two elements that keep our gardens looking beautiful all season long. Flowers can be scarce in shade, but great foliage adds interest over the long term.  One of the best perennials for partial to full shade that offers year-round foliage interest is the foamflower, or Tiarella.

This evergreen perennial excels at showing off its ornamental foliage all year, often emerging with brighter coloration in spring, mellowing in summer, and coloring up again in the fall and winter months.  Softly fragrant, bottlebrush-shaped flowers, which are typically white or pale pink in color, dance above the feathery textured foliage for many weeks in spring.  Foamflowers’ patterned foliage complements most other shade perennials like ferns, hostas, and sedges perfectly, never stealing the show but always looking neat and lovely.

Look for a brand new Proven Winners foamflower, ‘Jade Peacock’, making its debut in Spring 2015 in garden centers nationwide.  Named for its beautiful jade green foliage, it displays a feathery pattern of deep purple pigment in the center of each leaf. It will thrive in your partial to full shade garden in zones 4-9. 

CORAL BELLS (Heuchera)

One of the most versatile perennials you can grow in zones 4-9 is Coral Bells (Heuchera).  Here’s a plant that will grow in any amount of sunlight, from full sun to full shade, as long as you water it.  Ideally, coral bells prefer partial shade and average moisture levels. However, if you plant it in full sun, you’ll need to give it a little extra water and if you plant it in full shade, you’ll have to wait a little longer for it to grow to full size.  If you garden in clay soil, be sure to amend it when planting coral bells as they detest heavy, wet soils especially in winter.

There are many, many kinds of coral bells available today, so how do you know which are the best for your climate? Here’s a hint: feel the leaves before you buy.  If you live in a part of the country that is relatively cool and dry (low humidity levels), those varieties with thinner, shinier leaves should grow very well for you.  If you live where it is relatively warm and sticky (high humidity levels), those varieties with larger, fuzzier leaves should grow better for you.  Both shiny leaf and fuzzy leaf coral bells are now available in a broad range of colors to suit your gardening palette. 

Recommended Coral Bells:

  • DOLCE® ‘Blackberry Ice’—This heat tolerant cultivar will dazzle you in spring with its remarkably iridescent purple leaves with black veining. It grows quickly into a large, robust clump in the landscape and turns a metallic pewter color in the heat of the summer.
  • DOLCE® CINNAMON CURLS—This highly distinctive cultivar emerges fiery orange-red in spring and mellows to a spicy blend of cinnamon, red, and purple tones in summer. Its heavily ruffled, leathery leaves form a neatly compact clump, making it easy to fit into combination containers and the border’s edge.
  • ‘Citronelle’—If you’re looking to brighten up the shadiest corners of your garden, try this luminescent chartreuse to yellow selection. Its large, fuzzy leaves form a large, billowy cloud that sets off green ferns and yellow variegated hostas with perfection. Just remember its light colored foliage will burn in the sun, so give it the protection it needs and it will perform beautifully for you.

FOAMY BELLS (Heucherella)

If foamflowers and coral bells are growing well for you in your zone 4-9 shade garden, then be sure to give foamy bells or Heucherella a try.  This interspecific genus was created by crossing the pollen from Tiarella and Heuchera flowers to come up with a new kind of perennial that is a blend of both parents.  Since both of its parents grow well in shade, foamy bells also grows well there.  Follow the instructions for growing coral bells above and you’re sure to have success.

Advancements in breeding new cultivars of foamy bells has yielded some amazing results in the last decade or so.  Yellow, red, orange, or green cultivars are now available, many with a contrasting color in the center of each leaf.  These decorative foliage plants can be used throughout the shade garden to add a bright spot of season-long color to places that need it most.  As an added bonus, you’ll have pretty white bottlebrush flowers in late spring.

In Spring 2015, Proven Winners will be debuting a brand new Heucherella called ‘Leapfrog’ which emerges bright chartreuse yellow with a prominent burgundy center in spring and produces beautiful ivory, bottlebrush blossoms.  In the meantime, be sure to check out cultivars like ‘Sweet Tea’ and ‘Solar Eclipse’ at your local retailers. 

Byline:

Susan Martin is a lifelong gardener and Director of Marketing for Walters Gardens, Inc., proud supplier of Proven Winners® Perennials.  Catch one of her informative and inspirational talks at our Outdoor Living Extravaganzas each spring.

Patent Information:  'Autumn Frost' Hosta hybrid PPAF; 'Empress Wu' Hosta hybrid PP: 20774 Can. PP: 4240; Wheee! Hosta hybrid PPAF; 'Bottle Rocket' Ligularia hybrid PPAF Can. PBRAF; Dolce® 'Blackberry Ice' Heuchera hybrid PPAF Can. PBRAF; Dolce® Cinnamon Curls Heuchera hybrid 'Inheuredfu' PPAF Can. PBRAF; 'Citronelle' Heuchera villosa PP: 17934;

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 04/12/2017 - 2:25pm

How about shade plants that will survive close to walnut trees?

Sarah Geoghegan's picture
Sarah Geoghegan Fri, 04/14/2017 - 3:26pm

Hi there,
if you are dealing with a walnut tree, I would recommend looking at this article: https://www.provenwinners.com/learn/landscaping/curse-black-walnut It should give some insight as to plants that will survive it!

Hope this helps,
Sarah

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 07/01/2016 - 7:55pm

How about shade loving deer resistant perennials ??

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 09/21/2016 - 11:43am

I love perennials, but live across the street from a forest preserve and have a yard full of tall mature trees...a double challenge! I have found that it's best to put in plants that the deer don't like. My favorites include hellebores, astilbe, Japanese painted ferns, coral bells, primroses, campanulas, lady's mantle, low growing and spreading ajuga, epimedium, lungwort, dramatically big leaf ligularia, Solomon's seal, columbines, and brunnera. Anything that I try out and attracts the deer has to go! If you really love hostas then pick out varieties with deeply lobed leaves.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 07/06/2016 - 1:57pm

Good afternoon,

I would suggest you take a look at the following website and use the up to 100 characteristcs to choose from to find plants that will work for your area. http://www.perennialresource.com/encyclopedia/

You can search for all deer resistant, shade loving, zone ?, perennials. You should find many plants that would work in your area.

Thank you for your inquiry, happy gardening!

Best regards,

Barb Balgoyen
Walters Gardens, Inc.
Proud Supplier of Proven Winners Perennials

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 09/05/2014 - 9:42pm

Helleborous are a very good choice for shade and moisture. They grow well under under a bush like cornus that loose their leaves on winter and provide a filter shade on summer.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 08/16/2014 - 2:11pm

We have dense shade on the north side of our home. It gets NO sunlight. I have tried hostas & they grow - but piddly-like. is there anything one can plant that will thrive in dense shade? Thank you. C. K. Loecker

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 11/12/2014 - 10:14am

Try Pieris Japonica. I have the same situation, total shade on my both side. We too had some piddly hostas so I plumped out the plantings with half a dozen Pieris and some Hellebore and then a few annuals like impatients that can tolerate shade.

luvzcatz's picture
luvzcatz Fri, 04/18/2014 - 9:48am

We have an area in the back of our backyard that every time it rains, it gets flooded. The backyards of 4 residences slope down & meet in the middle & that's where the water collects. There is no way to drain the water. The yard back there turns into a muddy mess. It is very shady there & wondering if these hostas would survive in that type of environment. We just bought this house last summer. At this time, there is no grass in that area & I don't think grass would grow anyway. We have no clue on what to do. These hostas sound awesome. There is a chain-linked fence there too & I would love to hide it.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 07/06/2016 - 11:00am

I had a similar situation and solved the problem with a French Drain. Across the area where the water comes from dig a trench about 4 feet deep and 18 inches across. Slope the trench to the lower side of the yard. Next dig a similar trench all of the way to the front of the property sloped so water will drain making sure the water will flow before you fill it up and place the drain. Line the trench with porous fabric for landscaping. Next put pea gravel in the bottom 18inches of the trench. Finally place porous pipe into the trench that only has holes on the top half of the pipe Cover with one foot of gravel and fold over the fabric to wrap everything in the trench. Finally cover with top grade soil to ground level. I solved 2 feet of extra water coming from to large lots behind our home. The water is gathered in the trench and flows to the side yard and out to the street. I was not cheap but really worth it. We have not had any standing water since. With the California drought i was very happy to see that the trees along the areas with the drain have done very well with this setup. There are some swamp plants that might like the area, water loving plants can be very beautiful. You could also raise the area with planters and slope the soil to do the same thing not quite as effective but it might work. Finally you could get a sump pump drain in the center and run the hoses from this pump to the street. Hope this helps. I worked for a builder of large communities and the soils engineers gave me the solution to my problem so these were their suggestions.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 08/27/2015 - 10:11pm

we put in a rock river bed it solved the problem and added interest to the plants we put on with side. no more mud.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Tue, 07/22/2014 - 9:53am

I have n extremely we wet area in shade also. I have many hosts, ligularia and best of all in spring, primroses. They love the wet area and have reseeded so that I have a mass of them now.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Tue, 06/03/2014 - 12:34pm

I don't know about the laws in your state but runoff from your neighbor's yards into your yard is not allowed. Either you can fill in the low spot with a berm or your neighbors have to install drainage so that the water stays on their property.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 05/10/2014 - 9:15am

I actually have hostas floating in pots in my pond, so I imagine that they will grow in your occasionally wet area.
I have a couple of old pool chemical floaters, that I put in some dirt and hostas, and they are floating in the pond all summer.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 03/30/2014 - 8:59am

I am very enthusiastic about planting some of these choices in a place where the woods is a backdrop on the edge of our property. I will have to research each plant further though to find out if our local deer will be too eager to make a meal of them. I'm pretty sure hostas are out as the rabbits love them. It would be really helpful to have this information, too, with each plant, as to which are deer resistant etc.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 04/10/2014 - 2:28pm

You are correct that the Hosta will not be deer resistant. they are more like "Deer Salad". Of what Susan talked about in the article the Heuchera 'Balckberry Ice' will be some what resistant because of the hairs that cover the leaves as well as the H. 'Leap Frog.

If you are interested in finding perennials more deer resistant perennials, follow this link http://www.perennialresource.com/encyclopedia/. You can search this website for over 100 different characteristics. You can just click Deer Resistant and only plants that are resistant will come up.

I hope this helps, please let me know if you have additional questions.

Have a great day!

Barb Balgoyen
Walters Gardens, Inc.
Home of Proven Winners Perennials

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 03/29/2014 - 10:54am

Hi Susan:
I love these little darlings and have them in a shady spot under my Japanese Maple. The problem is they are getting little holes in them (some small bugs enjoy them very much). Any suggestions?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Tue, 06/14/2016 - 8:02am

Chances are, it's slugs. There is a pellet you can put around the plants that will take care of the problem. You should be able to find it at any flower store or places like Home Depot. Or place a small lid or bowl with beer in it. It will draw them out & I believe they drown. I used the pellets, tho.

Barb Balgoyen's picture
Barb Balgoyen Fri, 04/11/2014 - 1:02pm

The Foam Flowers have very few problems with insects or diseases. Often times by the time you see the damage, the insect has moved onto some other yummy plant. If you so not see the insect, I would recommend you use some all purpose insecticide, like Sevin Dust or one of the Bayer insecticides.

Hope this helps!

Barb

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