Searching for plants that grow in full shade is a job filled with challenges. The difficulties begin with the language used to discuss the subject, so some relevant terms need to be discussed first, starting with "full shade" itself. For horticultural purposes, a location is considered to be full shade if it receives less than three hours of direct sun daily but does receive some indirect sunlight.
A distinction should also be made between "surviving" and "thriving." Many plants can merely survive in full shade, but that is not good enough for most gardeners' purposes. Ornamental gardens are meant to beautify a property, and a plant that underperforms (for example, by not flowering as much as it should) is not helping the garden live up to this goal: It is taking up space better occupied by a plant that will be at its best there. Therefore, the best examples of full shade plants can not just survive in low-light conditions but rather thrive in them.
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You might easily overlook shrubs when planning your shade garden (many gardeners gravitate toward annuals and perennials). But do not forget about them: Shrubs provide structure and background for that planting bed you are so eager to fill with the smaller, more showy plants that tend to jump out at you at the garden center. All of the following shrubs are evergreens grown for their foliage, not for flowers, and they can add great value to a shade garden (zone recommendations listed refer to the U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zone system):
02 of 05
Perennials, particularly of the flowering kind, help you make up for the color variety and dramatic seasonal display that your evergreen shrubs lack:
- Common bleeding hearts (Dicentra spectabilis; zones 3 to 9)
- Fringed bleeding hearts (Dicentra eximia; zones 3 to 9)
- Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria; zones 3 to 7)
- Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum; zones 4 to 9)
- Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis; zones 4 to 9)
- Leopard plants (Ligularia spp.; zones 4 to 8)
- Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica; zones 3 to 8)
- Barrenwort (Epimedium grandiflorum; zones 5 to 9)
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Supplement the flowers provided by your perennials with well-placed annuals. Keep in mind that many of the plants that Northerners treat as annuals are actually perennials in warmer parts of the world where they originated (in most cases, the tropics). These plants are too tender to live long in climates that have cold winters. This is a case where usage trumps botany. These plants are termed "annuals" not because of their life cycle but because that is how they are used in gardens in colder climates.
The growing zones listed here indicate where the plants can survive as perennials; used elsewhere, they are annuals.
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Ground cover plants for full shade come in especially handy when you need to cover large swaths of shaded land and do not have the time or inclination to mess around with perennial beds or to plant a fresh batch of annuals every year to serve as bedding plants.
Continue to 5 of 5 below.
- Spotted deadnettle (Lamium maculatum; zones 4 to 8)
- Creeping myrtle (Vinca minor; zones 4 to 9)
- Cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior; zones 6 to 11)
- Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis; zones 4 to 8)
- Some types of plantain lily (Hosta spp.; zones 3 to 8 or 9, typically)
- Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis; zones 2 to 7)
- Interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana; zones 3 to 8)
05 of 05
Options for vines are limited, particularly if you are in search of a flowering vine for a shady location that is hardy in a cold-winter climate. Boston ivy is grown for its foliage, not its flowers. Unhappily, that foliage is not as colorful in fall if it is grown in full shade. But the nice, green foliage it provides in summer adds elegance to a shady nook. Meanwhile, climbing hydrangea does flower nicely even when grown in full shade, making it the favorite vine of shade gardeners in the cold areas.