What Are Some Good Xeriscape Plants for Shade?

Low-Water Plants for Shady Areas

Lily-of-the-valley (image) is fragrant but invasive. It's a traditional ground cover.
Lily-of-the-valley is fragrant but invasive. David Beaulieu

You have probably heard about xeriscaping, but when the challenge of growing plants in shady areas is joined to that of landscaping in dry soil, you have to select plants that can beat a double whammy. For example, those who garden in the high desert and where towering evergreen trees grow require plants that hold up to the dry conditions, while also being able to thrive in shade.

Most of your choices to xeriscape in the shade will be with perennial flowers, but a few shrubs also fit the bill, including:

  • Golden Sun firethorn (Pyracantha Soleil d'Or)
  • Japanese skimmia (Skimmia japonica subsp. reevesiana)
  • Japanese rose (Kerria japonica)

Firethorn is an evergreen with thorny branches that becomes 6 to 8 feet tall and wide. The spines make it ideal for landscaping property lines where discouraging intruders is held at a premium. But most gardeners just like its golden berries. It prefers full sun in the North but will tolerate shade. It is suited to USDA plant hardiness zones 5 to 10.

Japanese skimmia is another evergreen bush; it bears glossy, leathery leaves and stands 3 to 4 feet tall, with a similar spread. It is valued more for its fragrant white flowers and bright red berries. Even the foliage is somewhat fragrant. This is a true shade plant, not merely a bush that tolerates shade; in that sense, it is the best of these three shrub picks. Grow it in zones 6 to 8.

Japanese rose is a shade-tolerant, deciduous shrub that becomes 8 to 10 feet tall, with a similar spread. The bush is suitable for zones 4 to 9. It is best known for:

  • The great number of small, yellow flowers (single or double) it bears
  • Its graceful, arching branches
  • And the Kelly green color of its bark, a color it maintains through the winter

Drought-tolerant is always a relative term. You will have to water the following plants more if you live in an arid region than you would if you live in a region with more typical levels of rainfall but just happen to have a dry area on your property. 

Xeriscape Perennials for Shade:

The bulb plants that flower in early spring, such as snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis; zones 3 to 7) can also be considered xeriscape plants for shade, but only in a special sense: They will grow well in a spot that has dry shade in the summer. But that is because, by then, they are already finished flowering for the year and no longer need sunshine. In the early spring, they want sun and water. But it is usually not difficult to get them sufficient sunlight at this time, because, in early spring, the deciduous trees have not yet leafed out.

For the same reason, you should also check into native options, specifically, native wildflowers that bloom early in spring. Some are even called "ephemerals" because they get whatever sun and water they need in spring, come into flower, and then disappear for another year. An example is Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria; zones 3 to 7). The wildflower society in your state may be able to cite specific examples for your area of the country.

Do note, however, that some of these examples (such as lily of the valley) are invasive in certain parts of the United States. This makes sense if you think about it, because, to overcome the challenges presented by areas that are both shady and dry, a plant has to be mighty tough. The flip side of toughness is often invasiveness. Plants can't turn their toughness on and off in order to please us. Consequently, a tough plant that ends up being well-suited to a given area frequently performs a little too well, for our tastes: It spreads out of control, eventually earning it "invasive" status.