Top Trees and Plants That Love the Shade

Best in Show, From Trees to Ground Covers

Dutchman's breeches in bloom.
Dutchman's breeches is related to common bleeding heart. David Beaulieu

There is a pretty shade plant or sensible shade-tolerant answer to almost any landscaping need. The top performers can come from almost any group of plants, from trees and shrubs to turf and ornamental grasses.

  • 01 of 11

    Flowering Dogwood

    Flowering dogwood tree with red flowers.

    Nathan Blaney/Getty Images 

    Flowering dogwoods are understory trees in the wild and are an excellent choice for shade plants in a landscape. 'Cherokee Chief' is one cultivar of flowering dogwood tree (Cornus florida 'Cherokee Chief'). Its lower branches have a horizontal branching pattern, lending interest to any landscape design. This flowering dogwood grows to a height of 20 to 25 feet and spreads 12 to 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 U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 through 8.

  • 02 of 11

    Canadian Hemlock

    Hemlock tree branch with cones.

    lauraag/Getty Images

    Canadian (or "Eastern") 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.

  • 03 of 11

    Tatarian Dogwood or Red Osier Dogwood

    Red-twig dogwood with other plants in background.
    Paul Hart / Getty Images

    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 similar width.

    What follows the flowers is more interesting: the white fruit. And even these berries take a backseat to what red osier dogwood is really all about: its red bark. Grow it in hardiness zones 3 through 8. A similar plant is Tatarian dogwood (Cornus alba). Both are considered "red-twig" dogwood shrubs. While both tolerate shade, you will get more of the red color by giving them full sunlight.

  • 04 of 11

    Yew

    Yew shrub with berries.
    Guenter Fischer / Getty Images

    Yews (Taxus spp.) are evergreen shrubs. These plants can also be trees, depending on the type you grow. Yews are shade-loving plants with a long history. The short, flat needles of yews are dark green on top and light green on their undersides. The new foliage in spring is bright green and soft. Yews are relatively slow-growing and can either be left unpruned or pruned into a hedge.

    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." However, since the seeds are poisonous, and the seed matures within the berry, the berries should be considered off-limits. Keep small children away.

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

    Continue to 5 of 11 below.
  • 05 of 11

    Impatiens

    Different colors of impatiens flowers mixed together.

    Brennan Bill/Getty Images

    Impatient Lucy (Impatiens walleriana) has been one of the most popular annual gardening plants in the U. S. for some time now, due to its ability to bloom continually, including in shady conditions. Impatiens grow to 6 to 24 inches tall, depending on the variety. This shade-loving plant comes in various shades of pink, rose, red, lilac, purple, orange, and white.

  • 06 of 11

    Bleeding Hearts

    Bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) flowers lined up on their stem.
    Bleeding heart is a whimsical shade plant.

    Topic Images / Getty Images

    In addition to the bleeding heart plants most commonly seen in gardens (the common variety, Dicentra spectabilis), there are Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) and the fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia). All three are shade plants and cold-hardy to zone 3. The white flowers of Dutchman's breeches are shaped like little pantaloons.

    Common bleeding hearts are the tallest of the three (24 to 26 inches). Dutchman's breeches (6 to 12 inches tall) and fringed bleeding heart (12 to 18 inches) stay shorter.

  • 07 of 11

    Spotted Deadnettle

    Spotted deadnettle in bloom.
    David Beaulieu

    Spotted deadnettle (Lamium maculatum) is a shade-loving perennial for zones 4 through 9. Deadnettle grows to a height of about 1 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 silvery 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.

  • 08 of 11

    Creeping Myrtle and Climbing Hydrangea

    Lesser Periwinkle (Vinca minor) in bloom.
    Vinca minor is a ground cover for shade. Christa Dr Lüdecke / Getty Images

    Vinca minor vine, the perennial ground cover with the common names of "periwinkle flower" and "creeping myrtle" is widely used as a ground cover in areas where lawn grasses just will not work. Grown in zones 4 through 8, Vinca minor vine requires good drainage. This shade-loving ground cover has traditionally been planted under large trees, where most lawn grasses would quickly have given up due to insufficient light.

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

    Periwinkle flower is another invasive plant. If this is a problem for your region, use hosta plants (Hosta spp.) 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 through 7.

    Continue to 9 of 11 below.
  • 09 of 11

    Trout Lily

    Trout lily in bloom.

    David Beaulieu 

    Trout lily (Erythronium americanum) is a good pick for those in the Northeastern United States wishing to start a native-plant shade garden. Grow it in zones 3 to 8 in dappled shade. Trout lily becomes 6 inches tall and blooms in April. It likes a moist soil and does take longer to spread and produce flowers than do many plants. But its attractive leaves provide interest while you await its blossoms.

  • 10 of 11

    Northern Sea Oats

    Northern Sea Oats Chasmanthium latifolium
    Nate Abbott / Getty Images

    Northern sea oat grass (Chasmanthium latifolium) grows 24 to 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.

  • 11 of 11

    Lawn Grasses: Fine Fescue or Turf-Type Tall Fescue

    Tall fescue grass clump.
    Tall fescue grass isn't pretty but it's tough. David Beaulieu

    Fine fescue (Festuca spp.) lawn grass seeds often come in bags mixed with Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis). Buy any lawn-seed mixture labeled "for shade," which will include fine fescues, such as hard, chewing, and creeping red fescue. At least 80 percent should be fine fescue grasses. This shade-tolerant lawn grass grows in zones 3 through 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.

    At the same time, fescues do not want to be in excessively wet soil, so you should not plant them in areas that stay wet all of the time. Applying compost helps strike a balance between good drainage and water retention.