Top 10 Trees and Plants That Love the Shade

Best in Show, From Trees to Ground Covers

Pink dogwood flower (image) is a reassuring symbol of mid-spring. This is a Cornus florida.
Cornus florida may have blooms that are pink, white, or reddish. David Beaulieu

Flowering dogwood trees are among the hottest landscaping trees out there and easily make this list of the best shade plants. Because, while they are a hot item, they prefer a spot in your landscaping where it stays cool, a spot with dappled shade. But dogwoods are just one of ten plants on the list. We will be discussing these ten plants below, with links provided for a more in-depth look at each one.

Flowering dogwood tree wants to have it "made in the shade." Homeowners eager to garden in shady areas with their favorite plants (but frustrated by the challenges posed by such conditions) probably wonder why people use this phrase in such a positive way. "Isn't lack of sunlight in the garden a problem?" they wonder.

Well, that depends on how you approach the challenge. There is, in fact, a pretty shade plant or sensible shade-tolerant answer to almost any landscaping need, as this list for shade plants will show. For trees, not only does the list include flowering dogwood tree, but also hemlock (in case you prefer an evergreen). Quite simply, the following list is made up of ten different groups of plants, all of which are shade plants (or at least shade-tolerant).

Top 10 List of Shade Plants, by Group

  1. Deciduous trees: flowering dogwood trees.
  2. Evergreen trees: Canadian hemlock trees.
  3. Deciduous shrubs: red osier dogwood or red twig dogwood.
  1. Evergreen shrubs: yew shrubs.
  2. Annuals: impatiens flowers.
  3. Best perennials for shade include: bleeding hearts and hosta plants.
  4. Rock garden plants: deadnettle.
  5. Vines: periwinkle flower, or "vinca" (ground covers) and climbing hydrangeas (climbers).
  6. Ornamental grasses: Northern sea oats.
  7. Lawn grasses: fine fescue or turf type tall fescue.

    'Cherokee Chief' is one cultivar of flowering dogwood tree (Cornus florida 'Cherokee Chief'). Its lower branches have a horizontal branching pattern, which, in itself, lends interest to your landscape design. This flowering dogwood grows to a height of 20-25 feet and spreads 12-15 feet.

    Cherokee Chief dogwood puts out rosy-red blooms in spring, while its fall foliage is a red color with hints of bronze. Other types of Cornus florida have flowers that are white or pink. Grow Cherokee Chief in USDA planting zones 5-8. Understory trees in the wild, flowering dogwoods are an excellent choice for shade plants in the landscape.

    Eastern or "Canadian" hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) are shade plants that do not tolerate heavy winds, heavy clay soil, or drought. Hemlocks are best known as forest trees that reach enormous heights (60 feet or more). But if pruned faithfully, they can be maintained at the height you desire. A properly pruned row of hemlocks can even form a dense and attractive privacy hedge. Hemlock is hardy to zone 3.

    Best Shade-Tolerant Shrubs, Annuals, Perennials 

    Yews (Taxus spp.) are evergreen shrubs that grow in shade. These plants can also be trees, depending on the type you grow.

    They are shade-loving plants with a long history behind them.

    The hybrid cultivars of the Taxus x media group are crosses between Japanese yews and English yews. All parts of this plant are poisonous, except for the red berry, or "aril." But since the seeds are poisonous, and the seed matures within the berry, even the latter can be considered off limits. Keep small children away!

    Taunton yews (Taxus x media 'Tauntonii') are the best yews for regions with severe winters, because Taunton yews are resistant to winter burn. These shrubs grow about 3-4 feet tall and have a similar spread. The plants require a soil with good drainage.

    The short, flat needles of yews are dark green on top and light green on their undersides. New foliage in spring is bright green and soft. Taunton yews are hardy to zone 4.

    Yews are relatively slow growing and can either be left unpruned or pruned into a hedge. 

    Shade-tolerant red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea 'Allemans') blossoms in white in mid-spring. But it is really not about the flowers with this plant, which can mature to a height of as much as 10 feet (and to a width of about the same).

    What follows the flowers is more interesting: the white fruit. But even the berries take a backseat to what red osier dogwood is really all about: namely, its red bark. Grow it in hardiness zones 3-8. A similar plant is red twig dogwood. While both tolerate shade, you will get more of the red color by giving them more sunlight.

    Impatiens (Impatiens wallerana) has been at or near the top of the list for annual gardening plants in the U. S. for some time now, due to its ability to bloom continually, and to do so in shady conditions. Impatiens grows to 6-24 inches tall, depending on the variety. This shade-loving plant comes in various shades of pink, rose, red, lilac, purple, orange and white.

    In addition to the bleeding heart plants most commonly seen in people's gardens (namely, Dicentra spectabilis), other varieties do exist. Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is one. Another is the fringed bleeding heart. All three are shade plants and cold-hardy to zone 3.

    Dutchman's breeches has white flowers shaped just as the common name suggests. It reaches 6-12 inches tall, with a similar spread.

    Fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia), like D. spectabilis, has heart-shaped blooms; they are of a rosy pink color. But unlike the more common bleeding heart, it has a feathery foliage. This old-time perennial blooms continuously in the garden from April to October. Its height is 12-18 inches, its width about a foot. D. spectabilis grows 2-3 feet in height (with a similar spread) and can have pink or white flowers.

    Deadnettle (Lamium maculatum) is a shade-loving perennial for zones 4-9. Deadnettle grows to a height of about a foot, at most, with a much greater spread.

    It does put out blooms, but it is more often grown for its medium green foliage that is splashed with silver blotches.

    Not only does deadnettle love shade, but once established, it is also drought-tolerant, making it an ideal plant for rock gardens located in a shady spot. Just give it a soil with good drainage and let it go! It can be invasive in some regions, however.

    Ground Covers, Ornamental Grasses, and Lawn Grasses for Shade

    Vinca minor vine, the perennial ground cover with the cute common name of "periwinkle flower," is widely used as a ground cover in areas where lawn grasses just will not work. Grown in zones 4-8, Vinca minor vine requires good drainage. This shade-loving ground cover has traditionally been planted under large trees, where the homeowner's choice of lawn grass would quickly have given up, deprived of sufficient light.

    Vinca minor vine is a short plant, like the deadnettle mentioned earlier, growing only 3-6 inches off the ground, but its trailing stems with evergreen leaves spread up to 18 inches. The stems root at the nodes as they creep along the ground and spread rapidly to form an attractive ground cover. Vinca minor vine puts out those bluish-lavender periwinkle flowers in spring and may bloom a bit more here and there during the summer.

    Be forewarned: Periwinkle flower is another invasive plant. If the invasiveness of deadnettle or of Vinca minor bothers you, use hosta plants, instead.

    A more versatile vine for shade is climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala ssp. petiolaris). It, too can be used as a ground cover. But it is a much larger plant than Vinca minor, and it has a greater number of uses. For example, some owners of brick homes grow it up against their house walls. It is suitable for zones 4-7.

    Northern Sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) grows 24-36 inches high in loose clumps of green foliage. Its name comes from its seed pods, which look like oats. This shade-tolerant ornamental grass is cold-hardy to zone 5.

    But what if you wish to landscape a shady area with neither a ground cover nor an ornamental grass, but a regular lawn grass? You need a fescue grass.

    Fine fescue lawn grass seeds often come in bags mixed with Kentucky bluegrass. Buy any lawn-seed mixture labeled "for shade," which includes fine fescues such as hard, chewing, and creeping red fescue. At least 80% should be fine fescue grasses. This shade-tolerant lawn grass grows in zones 3-8. An alternative is the new and improved class of tall fescue grasses known as "turf type" tall fescues.

    When planting fine fescue seed in a shady area with trees, first use soil amendments such as compost and peat moss to improve the body of the soil, so that it does not dry out easily. You will have trouble with your fine fescues if the soil has a tendency to dry out, which is precisely what will happen if tree roots are absorbing all of the available water in the area.

    On the other hand, fescues do not want to be in excessively wet soil either, so you would not want to plant them in an area that stays wet all of the time. You need to strike a balance between good drainage and water retention, and applying compost will help you achieve this balance.

    Watering Shade Plants

    In fact, the latter bit of advice applies to any plant that you wish to grow in the shade. Just because it is not as hot in the shade as it is out in the sunny areas of your landscape, that does not mean that you can forget about watering your shade plants. They still need to be watered properly.

    A soil with good water-retention will cut down on the amount of time you will spend watering. Sandy soils need to be built up with organic matter. Organic matter will slow down the movement of water through the soil, so that your plants have a chance to take a drink.

    Finally, do not go to the opposite extreme either, thinking that there is no such thing as too much water. In fact, there is such a thing. The combination of a lot of water and poor drainage can be deadly to plants. Most plants need good drainage, because roots sitting in water will rot. Soils with heavy clay have this problem.

    Again, the answer is to amend the soil, although the problem here is the opposite from that described above (namely, with sandy soils). In the case of heavy clay soils, amendments will loosen up the soil, allowing water to percolate through at the right rate. After all, your plants' roots want to drink, not drown.