Searching for plants that grow in full shade is an endeavor fraught with challenges. The difficulties begin with the very language we use to discuss the subject. So I'll begin with a couple of clarifications on terminology:
- By definition (for horticultural purposes), a location is in "full shade" if it receives less than three hours of direct sun daily but does receive indirect sunlight. So we're not talking about trying to grow plants in the middle of a pine grove or tucked way under a deck, where almost complete darkness prevails.
- We have to clarify what we mean when we state that a particular plant will "grow" in full shade. In a landscaping context, few gardeners would be content merely to have a flowering plant survive in a shade garden. No, by "grow," we really mean "thrive," i.e., put on an impressive flowering display. This article limits itself to plants that will thrive in shade, even though this entails a reduction in the choices available.
In planning your shade gardens, you will also have to come to terms with concepts such as "partial shade" and "dappled shade." Many of the plants I discuss in my main article on shade gardens are suitable for conditions with partial shade (i.e., locations that get 3-6 hours of sunlight daily). But how is "dappled shade" different from this?
Deciduous trees cast dappled shade. To understand "dappled shade," just think of what a dappled horse looks like. Its coat is a mixture of dark and light spots, right?
And that's just what the ground under deciduous trees can look like on a sunny day, as some of the light filters down through the canopy, while the rest is blocked. Woodland phlox is an example of a plant that likes dappled shade.
Plants That Grow in Full Shade
But you're looking for plants that will take full shade, right?
That's what I'll be talking about for the rest of this article. I'll present them by category (i.e., by grouping shrubs, perennials, etc.).
I'll begin with shrubs, simply because you might easily overlook them when planning your shade garden (many gardeners think first of annuals and perennials). That would be unfortunate, since shrubs provide structure and background for that planting bed you're so eager to fill with the smaller plants more visible at the garden center. That's why the following shrubs -- while they are grown for their foliage, not for flowers -- add undeniable value to a shade garden:
- Hetz's Japanese holly
- Inkberry holly
- Hemlock (there are cultivars in shrub form that make excellent hedges)
- Yew bushes
Here's where you can begin to make up for the floral color those shrubs listed above fail to furnish:
- Bleeding hearts
- Fringed bleeding hearts
- Dutchman's breeches
- Lenten rose
- Leopard plants
- Virginia bluebells
- Barrenwort (
Supplement the flowers provided by your perennials with judiciously placed annuals. I should really put "annuals" in quotes because many of the plants Northerners treat as annuals are actually perennials in the lands to which they are native (namely, in the tropics).
It's just that they're too tender to fulfill their destinies in climates that have cold winters. This is a case where usage trumps botany: we call them "annuals" because that's how we (i.e., those of us who landscape in the North) happen to use them. Famous examples are:
Ground cover plants for full shade come in especially handy when you need to cover large swaths of shaded land and don't have the time or inclination to mess around with perennial beds or plant a fresh batch of annuals every year to serve as bedding plants. Examples include:
Slim pickings in this category, particularly if you're in search of a flowering vine for shady locations that is cold-hardy in the frigid North:
- Climbing hydrangea is one of the few vines that meet those criteria.
- Boston ivy is grown for its foliage. Even that won't be as colorful in fall if the plants are grown in full shade, but the nice green leaves it provides in summer is enough to please some homeowners.
Your Next Step
Most people have sunny, as well as shady locations in their yards, where they wish to establish planting beds. If you're ready to turn your attention to landscaping that sun-drenched portion of your property, here are some suggestions to ponder: