10 Best Perennials for Shade

Turn That Shaded Spot From a Problem Area Into a Showcase

My 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 my ten selections below, I did not include any spring bulb plants. But I did want to remind you...MORE shade gardeners right at the outset to take advantage of the earliest bloomers, such as snowdrops. These precocious posies 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 -- and therefore plenty of light for the earliest bloomers to thrive. Take advantage of this opportunity to inject additional color into your landscaping.

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

  • 01 of 10
    Lenten rose (image) is a shade plant that blooms early. It's a hellebore.
    Lenten rose is a shade-loving early bloomer. David Beaulieu

    As I said above, sometimes you get lucky and have pretty flowers and nice foliage on the same plant. Such is the case for my first entry, Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis). Although I must amend that statement slightly for you sticklers out there.

    You see, botanists regard what the average person sees as flower petals on this perennial for shade as "sepals," instead. Does that bother you any? No, I didn't think so. Regardless of any classification made by botanical insiders, the...MORE object shown in the picture at left is downright lovely, looking ever so much like a rose bud. It will open later and persist through the summer heat.

    Granted, the spring color will fade some, but that is where the foliage comes into play. If the plant is grown in a shady spot, its shiny, leathery, dark-green, intense-looking leaves will retain their beauty throughout the summer.

  • 02 of 10
    Closeup image showing what bleeding heart's flower looks like.
    If you crave whimsy in the landscape, bleeding heart may be the ultimate fun plant for you to grow. David Beaulieu

    The common bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) provides the introduction to this class of perennials for shade for many people. This particular species is a classic, but do not stop there! Other types of Dicentra worth planting in your landscaping include:

    If you are seeking attractive leaves to complement the interesting blooms, fringed bleeding hearts are the best choice of the three.

    My wife and I have a...MORE favorite walk in late spring on which we see Dutchman's breeches growing wild. The location is the north side of a wooded slope. So you know the plant is shade-tolerant. This is not a perennial, however, that you would grow for its foliage: it is a so-called "spring ephemeral," meaning that its foliage disappears soon after blooming time.

  • 03 of 10
    Photo: jack-in-the-pulpit lacks a nice floral display but has berries. These are red.
    What jack-in-the-pulpit lacks in a floral display it makes up for with resplendent berries. David Beaulieu

    Speaking of wild plants, jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a real doozie. It is a woodland plant in my part of New England, so, naturally, I associate it with 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 I mentioned a "little surprise" above? Jack-in-the-pulpit rewards those willing to forgive its floral deficiency with a brightly-colored bunch of red berries (photo...MORE at left).

  • 04 of 10
    Cornus canadensis
    Art Wolfe/The Image Bank/Getty Images

    Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) is another native plant in my neck of the woods (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 (thus its inclusion in this list of perennials for shade), essentially a wildflower.

    As with all the entries on this list, click the link above to access detailed information about the shade perennial in question.

    Continue to 5 of 10 below.
  • 05 of 10
    Spotted deadnettle (image) is a ground cover for shade. It is a Lamium.
    Spotted deadnettle is popular as a ground cover in shady spots. 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 my list that furnishes color both through its flowers 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 the 'Purple Dragon' deadnettle shown in the photo. 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 deadnettle is slightly invasive).

  • 06 of 10
    Picture: Hosta 'Halcyon' when a young plant.
    Picture: Hosta 'Halcyon' when a young plant. David Beaulieu

    Hosta is a no-brainer 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 coloration. Exceptions prove the rule, however, and one type of hosta that I recommend to dress up a shady spot is the plant shown in the image: Hosta 'Halcyo...MOREn.'

  • 07 of 10
    Leopard plant (image) is a shade perennial. I grow mine under a cherry tree.
    Leopard plant likes shady conditions and moist soil. 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 with which I am familiar has such interesting flowers.

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

  • 08 of 10
    Image of yellow columbine. Columbine comes in many colors, including yellow.
    Columbine comes in a number of flower colors, including yellow. David Beaulieu

    Columbine flowers come in a variety of colors. I show a yellow one in my image as a reminder that such brightly-colored flowers may be a good 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 "leafminers" do...MORE mark up the leaves, but I find their mining tunnels rather mesmerizing, not off-putting. Those of you who know your forest trees have perhaps experienced similar doodling under tree bark. In the case of trees a beetle is responsible, and the phenomenon is known as a "brood gallery." Bug art, anyone?

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

    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10
    Image of Jacob's ladder. The plant name derives from Genesis 12-19.
    Genesis 12-19 was the inspiration for the name, Jacob's ladder. David Beaulieu

    I mentioned above that my 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 ladder")....MORE 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 10

    Virginia Bluebells

    Photo: Virginia bluebells start out pinkish. They become blue later.
    Virginia bluebells actually start out pink, belying their common name. David Beaulieu

    I end my list with another perennial for shade that you would not want to grow for its foliage -- well, not if you are seeking a foliage plant for the summer, anyhow. 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...MORE plant.

    Oh, and by the way, you lovers of true-blue flowers, the pink-lavender color you see in the image at left does eventually morph into blue.

    Let me end with a word of wisdom to those who are new to creating shade gardens. Few plants will produce impressive blooming displays in . When we garden writers speak of planting in shaded areas, we are typically referring to , as I am above.

    For information on a variety of plants that grow in shade (that is, not only perennials, but also shrubs, annuals, etc.), see my Top Ten List of Shade Plants. Or maybe now that you are through planning for your shady location, you are ready to make plans for a sunny one? If so, see my list of 10 Best Perennials for Sun.