12 Best Perennials for Shade

Turn That Shaded Spot From a Problem Area Into a Showcase

Red columbine (Aquilegia formosa) plant in bloom, with yellow stamens.
Neil Holmes/Oxford Scientific/Getty Images

These picks for best perennials for shade run the gamut from plants with gorgeous flowers to those grown more for their pretty leaves. In some cases, you will be lucky enough to have both of these features on the same plant (or perhaps a little surprise; see below). By growing these beauties, you can transform that shaded spot in your landscaping from a problem area into your pride and joy.

Note that, in the selections below, no spring bulb plants are included. But you shade gardeners should...MORE remember to take advantage of these earliest bloomers. Bulb plants such as snowdrops emerge long before the deciduous trees leaf out. Here is why that is important to remember. Areas of your landscaping that are shaded later in the year by large specimens such as maple trees receive ample sunshine in early spring, before the trees leaf out. So there is plenty of sunlight in these spots for the earliest bloomers to thrive. Take advantage of this opportunity to add color to your landscaping.

Also excluded from the list was foxglove (Digitalis). But this is no reflection on the beauty of the plant. Instead, it was left off the list because it is often a biennial, rather than a perennial.

All of the perennials for shade listed here offer good cold-hardiness. Another factor for the selections was diversity: You will find a variety of flower colors below, as well as variations in height, plant texture, etc.

  • 01 of 12
    Lenten rose (image) is a shade plant that blooms early. It's a hellebore.
    David Beaulieu

    Sometimes you get lucky and have pretty flowers and nice foliage on the same plant. Such is the case for this first entry, Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis). 

    Botanists actually regard what the average person sees as flower petals on this plant as "sepals," instead. Regardless of any such nitpicking by botanical insiders, regular gardeners are content to say that this plant has a lovely flower reminding one of a rose bud. That "bud" will open later and last through the summer...MORE heat.

    Granted, its spring color will fade some, but that is where the foliage comes into play. If this perennial for shade is kept out of areas with too much light, its shiny, leathery, dark-green, intense-looking leaves will retain their beauty throughout the summer.

  • 02 of 12
    Closeup image showing what bleeding heart's flower looks like.
    David Beaulieu

    The "common" bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) is called that for a reason: It is very well known. This particular species is a classic, but there is no need to stop there. Other types of Dicentra worth planting in your landscaping include:

    If you are seeking attractive leaves to go along with the interesting blooms, fringed bleeding hearts are a great choice. But D spectabilis 'Gold Heart'...MORE may turn the most heads with its leaves, which have a bright golden color.

  • 03 of 12
    Photo: jack-in-the-pulpit lacks a nice floral display but has berries. These are red.
    David Beaulieu

    Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is sure to inspire you if you like plants that are a bit out of the ordinary. It is a woodland plant in many areas of North America, so it is a no-brainer for woodland gardens, which are really just a sub-class of shade gardens.

    This is one perennial for shade that certainly is not grown for its flowers. But remember that "little surprise" mentioned above? Jack-in-the-pulpit rewards those willing to forgive its lack of showy flowers with a...MORE brightly-colored bunch of red berries.

  • 04 of 12
    Cornus canadensis, a dogwood ground cover, in bloom.
    Art Wolfe/The Image Bank/Getty Images

    Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) is another native plant of North America (and another berry-bearer, as you can probably guess from the common name). It is in the same genus as the dogwood trees, but do not let that fool you: This is a tiny plant, essentially a wildflower.

    Continue to 5 of 12 below.
  • 05 of 12
    Spotted deadnettle (image) is a ground cover for shade. It is a Lamium.
    David Beaulieu

    Let's face it: "Deadnettle" is not the most appealing plant name in the world. First of all, seeing "dead" within the name does not exactly inspire confidence in brown thumbs. Secondly, the other part of the name may put you in mind of another "nettle" that is quite weedy (and causes skin irritation, to boot).

    All right, now it is time to put such negative thoughts out of your mind. Here are some facts to set you straight about spotted deadnettle (Lamium maculatum). It...MORE is another plant on the list that offers color both through its flowers (L. maculatum 'Purple Dragon' has purple blooms) and through its foliage. As one of the plants with silver foliage, this ground cover will brighten a shaded area, making it less gloomy even when it is not in bloom.

    There are a number of similar perennials related to 'Purple Dragon' deadnettle. One you may wish to avoid, however, is yellow archangel. It is a lovely plant, but the problem is that it tends to be very invasive (even L. maculatum 'Purple Dragon' may be slightly invasive).

  • 06 of 12
    Leaves of Frances Williams, a variegated hosta plant.
    Michael Davis/Photolibrary/Getty Images

    Hosta is an obvious choice in picking the best perennials for shade, as long as you're one who can appreciate what foliage plants bring to your landscaping. Everyone thinks "shade" when they hear mention of hosta, but do note that there are exceptions. The ones with golden leaves, for example, need enough sunlight to achieve their splendid color. Exceptions prove the rule, however, and one type of hosta recommended to dress up a shady spot is Hosta 'Halcyon.'

  • 07 of 12
    Leopard plant (image) is a shade perennial. I grow mine under a cherry tree.
    David Beaulieu

    Some kinds of Ligularia have spots, thus the common name, Leopard plant. Ligularia dentata 'Britt-Marie Crawford' may lack those spots, but it has plenty else to purr about. It sports big, pretty leaves like many hostas do, but no hosta has such interesting flowers.

    But its appearance only begins to tell the story of this perennial's versatility. While it is grouped with the shade perennials here, it can stand some sunlight if watered enough. Speaking of water, it can be grown in...MORE spots too wet for many other plants to handle. So 'Britt-Marie Crawford' gives you some wiggle room in terms of location.

  • 08 of 12
    Red columbine (Aquilegia formosa) plant in bloom, with yellow stamens.
    Neil Holmes/Oxford Scientific/Getty Images

    Columbine flowers come in a variety of colors. Types with brightly-colored blooms may be the best choice for shaded spots: They bring cheer to otherwise gloomy areas of your landscaping. Generally speaking, though, what makes columbine flowers so special is their unique shape.

    This perennial for shade also has nice foliage (variegated in some cultivars), which is clover-like, especially early in the growing season. Insects called "leaf miners" do mark up the leaves, but many find their...MORE mining tunnels rather cute, not off-putting. Those of you who know your forest trees have perhaps seen similar doodling under tree bark. In the case of trees, a beetle is responsible, and the tunnels are known as a "brood galleries." Bug art, anyone?

    Do not confuse columbine (Aquilegia) with columbine meadow rue (Thalictrum aquilegifolium), which is another good perennial for shade.

    Continue to 9 of 12 below.
  • 09 of 12
    Image of Jacob's ladder. The plant name derives from Genesis 12-19.
    David Beaulieu

    Mentioned above was the fact that these selections vary in terms of texture, and Jacob's ladder (Polemonium caeruleum) is a good example of one with a fine texture. When you have different textures to play with, you can create contrasts. In the perennial shade garden, that could mean pairing coarse-textured plants such as hosta or Ligularia dentata 'Britt-Marie Crawford' with Jacob's ladder, whose very name is a reference to the unusual shape of its foliage (think "rungs of a...MORE ladder"). Or if you do not mind mixing a tropical plant (and therefore one that must be treated as an annual in the North) in with your perennials, use coarse-leafed elephant ear plants as a stunning foil.

  • 10 of 12

    Virginia Bluebells

    Photo: Virginia bluebells start out pinkish. They become blue later.
    David Beaulieu

    The leaves of Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), like those of Dutchman's breeches (see above under Bleeding Hearts), just up and vanish on you by midsummer. That is, the perennial enters a period of dormancy. That is all right, though, because as you can tell by the name, it is all about the flowers with this spring plant. Flowers start out pink-lavender but later change to blue.

  • 11 of 12
    Rodgers flower image.
    David Beaulieu

    Let's end the list with two perennials for shade that you would want to grow mainly for their foliage. Rogers flower (Rodgersia) does bear blooms, but it is valued more for its big, pretty leaves. Some types (such as R. aesculifolia) have leaves like those on a horsechestnut tree (Aesculus). Like leopard plant, this one works well in wet areas.

  • 12 of 12
    Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Naomi') with red, golden, and green in its leaf blades.
    Hakonechloa macra 'Naomi' is a type of Japanese forest grass with red, as well as gold in its leaves. Joshua McCullough/Photolibrary/Getty Images

    Even more so than Rogers flower, Japanese forest grass, or "Hakone grass" (Hakonechloa macra) is grown for its value as a foliage plant. You can choose from various cultivars, depending on the look that you want. For example, 'Naomi' often has more red in its leaf blades than 'Aureola,' which is one of the best kinds for a golden color.

    Beginners who are new to creating shade gardens need to remember one thing that may not be obvious. Few plants will produce impressive...MORE blooming displays in deep shade. When we garden writers speak of planting in shaded areas, we are typically referring to an area that receives at least some indirect light. So you would not want to plant, for example, right under a large, spreading shrub, where there is almost complete darkness. Even shade-loving perennials need a small amount of sunlight.

    There is a variety of plants that grow in shade, not only perennials, but also shrubs, annuals, etc. And remember, if you are planning a perennial garden for a sunny location, you will want to grow the best perennials for sun.