The Best Plants for Brightening Shade Gardens

Japanese forest grass clumped in middle of rocks and shrubs under the shade

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

There was a time when shade gardening was viewed as limiting and even boring. A great deal of shade garden design is built around the use of varying textures and forms, without much thought for color. If you still think the only thing that flowers in the shade is Impatiens, take a look at this shade garden design.

Like a walk through a woodland, a shade garden can be a wonderfully cool, restful oasis in the heat of summer. But there are times when a shady nook would really benefit from a little brightening. That doesn’t mean you have to remove a tree and let in more light.

Plants that reflect light or almost seem to glow on their own can be used to create a bright spot in the shade. These plants fit that bill.

  • 01 of 07

    Hostas With Gold and Variegated Leaves

    Hosta plant with large variegated green and white leaves in shade garden

    The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

    Hosta is the go-to shade plant. Yes, deer love them, but if you can work around that, there is no better choice for variety in a shade garden.

    The creamy variegated leaved hostas are often used to brighten shade gardens, but the golden varieties can be even more effective. Gold foliage glows in the slightest ray of sun.

  • 02 of 07

    Japanese Forest Grass

    Japanese forest grass with long and thin sword-like leaves closeup

    The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

    While Hakonechloa macra isn't strictly a shade plant, it will grow and keep it's color quite well in partial shade. There's no denying this golden grass is a flash of light. If your shady corner gets a breeze, the blades will put on quite a show.

    If only it would grow faster. Learn how to grow Hakonechloa macra and keep it happy in your garden.

  • 03 of 07

    European Ginger

    Asarum, Europaeum, caudatum, tailed
    emer1940 / Getty Images

    Asarum europaeum (European Ginger)is not a flashy plant, but it always holds its own in the garden. Unlike American wild ginger, European ginger has glossy, shiny leaves.

    It grows as a low, slow creeping ground cover that sweeps around other plants, catches the light and reflects it up. The leaves are so shiny, everyone wants to reach down and touch it.

  • 04 of 07

    Blue Hydrangeas

    Blue hydrangea plant with clusters of light purple and pink flowers poking out of leaves

    The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

    Blue has a cool quality that blends well in a shade garden. The cool sensibility combines with the light-reflecting quality of brilliant blue and makes a stunning statement. Plus, the sheer size of hydrangeas makes a big impact.

    Be sure you choose a hydrangea that flowers blue in any soil, not a Bigleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) that changes color based on the soil pH. Luckily there are lots of new blue varieties suitable for most hardiness zones.

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07


    Lungwort plant with tiny pink and purple blooms on thin stems and spotted leaves

    The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

    There's so much to recommend Pulmonaria. It's one of the earliest plants to flower in the spring. The silver speckled foliage picks up the slightest glint of light and looks good all season. And then there are those intriguing flowers.

    So many Pulmonaria have flowers that change from pink to blue, as they're pollinated. Other Pulmonaria blooms literally scream in shade in shades of electric blue. And if subtlety is more your style, there are cool white Pulmonaria varieties.

  • 06 of 07

    Lamb's Ear

    Lamb's ear plant with silvery-green leaves on side of outdoor steps and metal railing

    The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

    Finally, when you think of ways to lighten up a dark corner, white may be the color that first jumps to mind. There’s no denying the glow given off by white flowers and foliage, but don’t overlook silvers and soft grays.

    Here’s a shade garden design that makes use of some of the plants highlighted in this gallery as well as some not often considered for shade, like the lamb’s ear.

  • 07 of 07

    Leopard Plant

    Leopard plant with tall spike with tiny yellow flowers in shade garden

    The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

    If you have damp soil or a boggy area that gets at least partial shade, you can't go wrong with striking Ligularia plants. They can be a bit temperamental to get started, but they can also spread over a good deal of ground when they are happy. Don't worry, you will always find another gardener willing to take your extras.

    Leopard plant got its name from the spots that on the leaves of certain varieties. Some also have red coloring on the undersides. This is all highlighted by bright, golden flowers held high atop the foliage, during mid- to late summer.