Plants That Grow in Full Shade

These Beauties Don't Just Survive There, They Thrive

Helleborus orientalis
Lenten rose grows well in full shade. 49pauly / Getty Images

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 in full shade if it receives less than three hours of direct sun daily but does receive 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 our purposes. Ornamental gardens are meant to beautify a property, and a plant that underperforms (by, for example, not flowering as much as it should) is not helping you live up to this goal: It is taking up space better occupied by a plant that will be at its best there. So the examples recommended for full shade here are plants that can not just survive in low-light conditions but even thrive in them.

illustration of plants that grow in full shade
Illustration: The Spruce / Ashley Nicole DeLeon
  • 01 of 05

    Shrubs

    Closeup of yew bush with red berries (arils).
    The yew was long a popular foundation shrub.

    Cora Niele/Getty Images

    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 plants that tend to be much more visible 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

    Bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) flowers lined up on their stem.
    Common bleeding heart is the star of its genus.

    Topic Images/Getty Images

    This is where you can begin to make up for the floral color that your evergreen shrubs lack:

  • 03 of 05

    Annuals

    Different colors of impatiens flowers mixed together.
    Impatiens is a popular bedding plant.

    Brennan Bill/Getty Images

    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.

    • Impatient Lucy (Impatiens spp.; zone suitability varies by type)
    • Wax begonia (Begonia x semperflorens-cultorum; zones 7 through 11)
    • Coleus (Plectranthus and Solenostemon; zone 11)
  • 04 of 05

    Ground Covers

    Bunchberry in bloom.
    Bunchberry is a North-American native. David Beaulieu

    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.
  • 05 of 05

    Vines

    Boston ivy in its fall color.
    Boston ivy is at its best in fall. David Beaulieu

    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 North.