Top 10 List of Shade Plants

Best in Show: Flowering Dogwood Trees

Pink dogwood flower (image) is a reassuring symbol of mid-spring. This is a Cornus florida.
Pink dogwood flower: spring's four-pronged campaign of color. David Beaulieu

Flowering dogwood trees are among the hottest landscaping trees out there. But while they are a hot item, they prefer a spot in your landscaping where it stays cool, a spot with dappled shade. For reasons I discuss below, I place dogwoods at the top of my list of shade plants.

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 this phrase has such a positive connotation.

They find their garden design plans thwarted again and again by the lack of sunlight in their gardens. But there's a shade plant or shade-tolerant answer to almost any landscaping need, as this Top 10 list for the shade shows. 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 composed of ten different categories of plants, all of which are shade plants -- or at least shade-tolerant.

For those who prefer images to text, I have also made available a sample landscape plan for shady areas.

Top 10 List of Shade Plants, by Category:

  1. Deciduous Trees: Flowering Dogwood Trees
  2. Evergreen Trees: Canadian Hemlock Trees
  3. Deciduous Shrubs: Red Osier Dogwood or red twig dogwood
  4. Evergreen Shrubs: Yew Shrubs
  5. Annuals: Impatiens Flowers
  6. Best perennials for shade include: Bleeding Hearts, Fringed Bleeding Hearts and Hosta Plants
  1. Rock Garden Plants: Lamium
  2. Vines: Periwinkle Vinca (ground covers) and Climbing Hydrangeas (climbers)
  3. Ornamental Grasses: Northern Sea Oats
  4. Lawn Grasses: Fine Fescue or Turf Type Tall Fescue

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' or more). But if pruned faithfully, they can be maintained at the height you desire. A properly pruned row of hemlocks can form a dense and attractive privacy hedge, for instance. Hardy to zone 3.

'Cherokee Chief' flowering dogwood tree (Cornus florida 'Cherokee Chief') won my top ranking for spring flowering trees and shrubs, with an impressive array of landscaping benefits. Its lower branches have a horizontal branching pattern, which in itself lends interest to the landscape. This flowering dogwood grows to a height of 20'-25' and spreads 12'-15'. Cherokee Chief dogwood puts out red blooms in spring, while its fall foliage is bronze-colored. Zones 5-8. An understory tree in the wild, flowering dogwoods are an excellent choice in shade plants for the landscape.

On Page 2 we'll continue down the Top 10 list, looking at shade plants and shade-tolerant shrubs, annuals, perennials and rock garden plants....

On Page 1 I mentioned yews as evergreen shrubs that grow in shade. These plants can be trees or shrubs. 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 aren't affected so much by the severe cold as they are by the snow. Taunton yews grow about 3'-4' x 3'-4'. The plants require a soil with good drainage.

The short, flat needles of yews are dark green on top and light green on their underside. 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. Additional information is available from my article, "Japanese Yews and English Yew Bushes."

Shade-tolerant red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea 'Allemans') blossoms in white in mid-spring. But it's 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, superior color may be attained by furnishing 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 in shady conditions. Impatiens grows to 6"-24" tall, depending on 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, other varieties do exist. Dutchman's breeches is one. Another is the fringed bleeding heart. All three are shade plants.

Fringed Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia) has a feathery foliage and whimsical, heart-shaped blooms of a rosy pink color. This old-time perennial blooms continuously in the garden from April to October. Height 12"-18", width 12". Zones 3-9.

Deadnettle (Lamium galeobdolon) is a shade-loving perennial for zones 4-9. Deadnettle grows to a height of 1'-2', with a similar spread. It puts out a yellow bloom, but 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. The silver in its foliage plays well with the bluish-green foliage of rock garden plants such as sedum. Just give it a soil with good drainage and let it go!

On Page 3 we turn to shade-loving and shade-tolerant ground covers, ornamental grasses and lawn grasses....

Vinca minor vine, the perennial ground cover with the cute common name of "periwinkle flower," is widely used as a grass substitute in lawn areas. 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 on Page 2, growing only 3"-6" off the ground, but its trailing stems with evergreen leaves spread up to 18".

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 the bluish-lavender "periwinkle flowers" in spring and blooms intermittently throughout summer. Be forewarned: periwinkle flower is an invasive plant. If the invasiveness of Vinca minor bothers you, use hosta plants, instead.

Northern Sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) grows 24"-36" high in loose clumps of green foliage. Its name derives 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 turf grass? You need a fine 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.

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'll 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 the available water in the area. On the other hand, fescues don't want to be in excessively wet soil either, so you wouldn't want to plant them in an area that is chronically wet. You need to maintain a balance between good drainage and water retention, and applying compost will help you achieve this balance.

In fact, the latter bit of advice applies to any plant that you wish to grow in the shade. Just because it's not as hot in the shade as it is out in the sunny areas of your landscape, don't forget that your shade plants still need to be watered properly. A soil with good water-retention will minimize the amount of time you'll spend watering -- but you still have to water shade plants! Sandy soils need to be amended with organic matter; the latter will slow down the movement of water through the soil, so that your plants have a chance to take a drink.

Finally, resist the temptation to go to the opposite extreme, thinking that there's no such thing as too much water. 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. In the case of heavy clay soils, amendments will loosen up the soil, allowing water to percolate hrough at a reasonable rate. After all, your plants' roots want to drink, not drown!