Home Outdoors Garden
Susan MartinUpdated: Sep. 07, 2022
Finding plants that don't just survive, but thrive in shade can be challenging. These shade perennials are a sure win for your shade garden.
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Made in the Shade
As someone who has grown more than 1,000 different kinds of plants in the shade over the last 17 years, choosing just a handful to recommend is a daunting task. I’ve finally settled on a baker’s dozen of perennials, that I simply could not live without in my shade garden, to share with you here.
These perennials all have one very important trait in common — they won’t spread with reckless abandon or take over your garden. When space is at a premium and you’d like to fit in as many shade loving plants as possible, that is a very important characteristic to consider.
You may see some familiar faces here, like hostas and ferns, but I’ve also included a few perennials that have not yet had their moment in the spotlight in hopes that they will become more widely grown. Several garden-worthy natives also made the list. Pick one or two to expand your palette of shade-loving plants this season and you just might find your new favorite perennial.
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It’s tough to decide which is the more attractive feature of astilbe — its interesting fernlike foliage or the sweetly fragrant plumes that bloom in shades of pink, red and white in early summer to midsummer. This hardy perennial combines the best of both. Its finely textured leaves complement broader-leafed companions like coral bells and brunnera. Most are green but ‘Chocolate Shogun’ astilbe has dramatic, deep-purple foliage that easily stands out in the shade garden.
Astilbe fills the gap between spring flowering shrubs like rhododendrons and summer bloomers like hydrangeas, which helps to provide continuous color in the landscape. It grows as a hardy perennial in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 to 9 where it enjoys moist, acidic soil and is deer resistant. If your soil is very sandy or heavy clay, amend it with compost at time of planting. In the cooler ends of its hardiness zones, astilbe will grow in sun or shade, but in warm climates, afternoon shade is a must.
Since the first silver-leafed brunnera was introduced to gardeners 20 years ago, this USDA zone 3 to 8-hardy perennial has become a shade garden essential. Its heart-shaped, shimmering silver leaves reflect the filtered light under tall trees all season, while sprays of tiny, baby-blue flowers are a delight in the springtime. Newer cultivars like ‘Jack of Diamonds’ and ‘Sterling Silver’ avoid the disease issues that could sometimes plague older varieties, so their foliage looks beautiful right up through the first frost.
Brunnera grows best in morning sun or filtered shade; harsh afternoon sun can cause its leaves to curl and scorch. Pair this perennial with other deer-resistant varieties. like ferns and primroses near the front of the border in rich, well-drained soil with average moisture.
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Fernleaf Bleeding Heart
Many shade gardeners are familiar with the puffy, pink and white heart-shaped spring blossoms of old-fashioned bleeding hearts. While they certainly have their place, it’s the fernleaf type of bleeding heart that really pulls the weight. That’s because it does not go dormant in the summer — it keeps right on blooming with its verdant green foliage looking fresh from spring into fall.
Although its cotton candy-pink blossoms are smaller than old-fashioned types, what they lack in size they greatly make up for in quantity and longevity. Look for the nativar ‘Luxuriant’ which has deep reddish-pink blooms.
Fernleaf bleeding hearts are deer-resistant, woodland perennials that flourish in moist, loose, humus-rich soils in USDA zones 3 to 9. Although they will happily bloom in full morning sun, they need no direct sunlight to be able to produce flowers. Try a cluster of them tucked in among spring wildflowers under a canopy of tall trees.
Here’s a perennial you will want to plant near a window, so you won’t miss the daily parade of hummingbirds that will surely be stopping by. Native cardinal flower is nature’s own hummingbird feeder. Its vivid, scarlet blossoms are just the right shape to allow easy access for pollinators. They line the 3 to 4 foot tall stems from late summer into the fall, opening from the bottom of the stalk to the top. You’ll notice that hummingbirds will visit continually until the very last blossom is spent.
Cardinal flowers can be found growing in the wild from Maine to Texas in USDA zones 3 to 9, typically in wet or moist areas alongside a body of water or in marshy woods where they are not bothered by deer. Although they are most prolific in full sun, they also grow and bloom well in as little as four to six hours of sun.
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Here is one of the lowest maintenance shade perennials you’ve never heard of that deserves to be planted much more widely. It is deer and rabbit resistant due to its scented, fuzzy foliage, is drought tolerant, grows quickly, and even feeds the bees.
If you have a tough spot around the base of a tree or where the hose doesn’t reach, try bigroot cranesbill (Geranium macrorrhizum). It spreads slowly to form a large patch, or you can divide and transplant pieces of it to other parts of your landscape.
This workhorse of a perennial grows in full sun to mostly shade in USDA zones 4 to 8. If you plant it in more sun, you’ll also get to enjoy its bright orange-red fall foliage color. Average soil that is well-drained is all this plant needs to take root and do its job like a boss.
Courtesy Susan Martin
It’s easy to gravitate towards showy Japanese painted ferns when shopping for shade perennials, but don’t overlook our native lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina). This elegant, widely adaptable fern can be found growing throughout the entire continental United States and Canada in moist woods, down slopes and along streams, but it also looks right at home in cultivated shade gardens. Its feathery, light green, 2- to 3-foot-tall fronds pair well with every other plant on this list of best shade perennials.
Lady fern thrives in six hours or less of sun and prefers moist, well-drained acidic soils. Although it won’t mind wet feet from time to time, clay soil tends to be too dense for its roots to become firmly established. Enjoy its fairytale-like fiddleheads as they emerge each spring and expect it to go dormant each fall with the first frost.
Courtesy Susan Martin
You might be growing coral bells or foamflowers in your shade garden, but this distinctive hybrid called foamy bells or Heucherella is a cross between both and offers the best traits of each. Pollinating bees enjoy its frothy pink or creamy white blossoms in late spring, while its colorfully patterned foliage continues to shine all the way until it goes dormant in late fall.
Chartreuse varieties like ‘Eye Spy,’ pictured here, and others like ‘Gold Zebra’ are ideal for brightening up shady nooks along a pathway or tucked along the skirt of large hostas or ligularia. You can also find foamy bells with copper, burgundy or green leaves — something to suit every color palette.
Grow foamy bells in partial shade to full shade in moist, well-drained soil in USDA zones 4 to 9. Wet soil in winter can be this perennial’s downfall, so avoid planting in heavy clay or where you tend to pile snow in the winter.
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Hostas are the king of the shade garden and for good reason — they are super easy to grow in any degree of shade, they multiply and live for decades in USDA zones 3 to 9 and are forgiving if the soil gets a little dry now and then. The biggest challenge some gardeners face with hostas is that deer and rabbits love them too. However, by keeping them protected with animal repellent from spring to fall, it is possible to grow hostas in gardens where these critters are present.
If you think you’ve grown enough hostas, consider that there are more than 7,000 unique registered varieties that range from just a few inches tall to six feet across. The image shown here is a gorgeous tapestry of many of the different colors and patterns you’ll find, but is just a drop in the bucket when you consider how many more you could collect.
Here’s a native wildflower that has been around for centuries but is just now becoming more widely available at garden centers. That’s because it has been notoriously difficult to grow from seed, but now that stronger cultivars like ‘Little Redhead’ are here, it is easier than ever before to find and grow.
Commonly known as Indian pinks, Spigelia thrives in warm, humid climates in USDA zones 5 to 9, where it prefers moist, rich soil and little root competition from neighboring plants. It has some of the showiest blossoms of any wildflower, and you can bet that hummingbirds won’t miss them when they are in bloom.
Upright clusters of scarlet red, tubular flowers with a bright yellow star at the top bloom in late spring to early summer at the tips of each stem. If you grow it in bright shade to part sun, you’ll see more blooms and the plant will form a denser clump.
These true harbingers of spring will amaze you with their flower buds which appear in the earliest days of the season shortly after the snow melts. Blooming in shades of pink, purple, yellow and white, in either single or double flower forms, they are some of the first plants to be pollinated by bees. Thankfully, they are not favored by deer or rabbits.
Lenten roses (Helleborus) are shade loving, evergreen perennials with large, umbrella-shaped leaves that emerge fresh each spring once the flowers are spent. Trim away their old, tattered foliage in late winter so that they won’t distract from the delightful flower show.
People all around the world grow Lenten roses in their shade gardens and woodlands where they slowly spread by seed if they are happy. They are hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9. Though they can bloom in any degree of shade, they can also handle some sun if the soil stays moist.
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Subtle beauty is what sets this charming perennial apart. Tall, wiry stalks that can reach six feet tall carry sprays of lilac purple blossoms from late summer into early fall. It’s even more delightful if you support the stems with four foot tall bamboo stakes and let the remainder arch over to greet you face to face as you pass by. Look for the variety ‘Splendide’ which is especially floriferous and can reach towering heights of nine feet.
Equally enjoyable is meadow rue’s finely textured foliage that looks much like a maidenhair fern, only larger. This airy “see-through” perennial pairs beautifully with neighboring plants that have broad leaves, like Rodgersia or hydrangeas. Because its stems are very thin, you’ll want to grow it in a protected location where wind won’t damage them.
Meadow rue thrives in climates where summers aren’t very hot and humid in USDA zones 4 to 8. Plant in part shade or sun. If your soil is especially sandy or heavy clay, amend it with compost or humus when you plant to improve its texture and retain moisture around the plant’s roots.
If you like the look of broad-leaved hostas in your shade garden but want to try something different, grow Rodgersia. Its huge, palmate, ruggedly textured leaves can each reach a foot across or even larger when spring is warm and wet. Overall, it is similar in size to a large hosta but with the added bonus of sweetly fragrant, pale pink to creamy white flower plumes in early summer.
The key to growing a nice looking Rodgersia is to plant it in fertile, consistently moist soil in a partly shaded location where it will be protected from drying winds. Wherever you might grow a rhododendron or ligularia in USDA zones 4 to 8, Rodgersia will also thrive. Mulch around the base of the plant to keep its roots cool and the soil moist. Be sure to give this plant plenty of elbow room to unfurl its impressive leaves and shine as the focal point of your shade garden.
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One of the last perennials to bloom in the shade garden in the fall are the toad lilies (Tricyrtis) — such an odd name for such an elegant flower! Their intricately patterned blossoms are like mini orchids that you’ll want to admire up close, so be sure to grow them somewhere accessible, like near a garden path. ‘Miyazaki Hybrids’ is an especially floriferous cultivar that produces clusters of flowers all the way up the stems. ‘Autumn Glow’ has variegated foliage that is so showy, you won’t even care if it blooms.
Toad lilies thrive in partial to full shade and don’t need to be growing in direct sun to bloom. They are a natural fit planted under upright Japanese maple trees in the company of ferns, hostas and coral bells. Be sure to provide irrigation and mulch around their roots to keep the soil cool and moist. Once established, toad lilies are long-lived perennials in USDA zones 4-8.
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Originally Published: April 12, 2022
Susan Martin is a lifelong gardener who enjoys sharing her passion for plants, gardening and the business of horticulture with fellow plant enthusiasts across North America. She has spent over two decades working in the horticulture industry on new plant development, garden design, sales, marketing and consulting. Susan has received visitors from around the world in her home garden which has been featured in numerous gardening publications. Her goal is to inspire and educate people about how to garden every day.