Few of us will have the beauty of a mature tree in the garden, or even the luxury of space for a woodland. But in modern houses, packed together with small gardens and tall fences, many of us have areas of our gardens that see precious little sun. This isn’t cause for concern, however. Just as nature has caused evolution to find a plant to fill every single niche there are a whole host of plants perfectly adapted to growing in shady spots. And your garden can be just as diverse and as exciting as one bathed in full sun. Just a little cooler, so you can enjoy relaxing in it, even on those roasting hot summer days.
1. Veratrum album
The ornately pleated foliage of veratrum make this a striking plant for a shady area. Add to that their tall, slender flower spike with covered with tiny white blooms and you have a truly theatrical plant with both texture and drama to outshine almost any sun loving plant.
2. Tiarella cordifolia
This low-growing perennial will positively thrive in shady areas. It also won’t mind the drier conditions in the shade of larger trees. They make great ground cover and will slowly spread to form a mat of beautifully coloured leaves with a haze of delicate flowers in the spring. This a useful plant that is tough enough to thrive in even the trickiest of spots.
3. Heuchera Americana
Heuchera are best known for their brightly coloured leaves that carpet the floor in even the shadiest of spots. Breeders have developed a huge range of different colours, from the lime greens of ‘Lime light’, the rust and oranges of ‘Marmalade’, ‘Tiramisu’ and ‘Peach flambé’ or the purple of ‘Purple Palace’ and ‘Liquorice’. For the best effect, partner them with taller plants such as Solomon seal.
4. Polygonatum × hybridum
Solomon’s seal is a strikingly beautiful and elegant plant. It has a single arching stem lined with opposing pairs of oval leaves. The small white flowers look like a droplet of water hanging from the underside of the stem at each node. It is a great plant for shady areas and prefers a bit of moisture in the spring, but will tolerate a bit of drying out as the canopy closes up in the summer. Watch out for tiny, black sawflys laying their eggs in midsummer as once they get established they can strip a plant bare.
5. Helleborus x hybridus
Hellebores are ‘must have’ plants for the woodland garden and their are lots of excellent varieties. The season starts around Christmas with flowers appearing on the winter flowering helleborus niger and the green flowered helleborus foetidus. Around Easter the more colourful and ornate oriental and hybrid hellebores start to put on their show, which continue for a few months into early summer. With oriental and hybrid types it is essential to remember to remove the foliage during the late autumn. This presents the flowers better and helps to prevent the transference of fungal leaf problems from year to year.
6. Hamamelis mollis
The witch hazel is one of many shrubs and small trees that prefer growing in shady woodland settings. Their flowers appear in late winter and on a sunny day they will fill the garden with a delicate yet invigorating perfume. They like to be kept moist during the summer when they are putting on their new flowering growth for next years display. Make sure you give them enough room when you plant them as they often have a very broad, spreading crown.
7. Luzula nivea
This grass positively thrives in the shade. It has a steely grey colour with very fine, coarse leaves. From mid summer onwards it presents a white flower head that hangs over the clumps of grass like a haze. A great grass to add texture and movement alongside bold foliage plants like heucheras and hellebores.
8. Hakonechloa japonica
This broad-leaved, mound-forming, deciduous perennial grass is a valuable plant in any garden designers toolbox. It isn’t one of the most showy plants, but gives movement and texture in the shadier areas of the garden. When they come into growth in spring, they are fresh and lime green. Over summer and autumn they gradually dry and mature to brown and fade until late winter when they are a pale and as delicate as paper, at which point it’s time to tidy them up ready for the spring.
9. Cyclamen coum
These long lived herbaceous plants are not just for bedding displays. In woodland gardens, the hardy forms like C. coum and C. hederifolium love to nestle in the nooks between the buttresses of tree roots. They are particularly long lived, and will form large colonies over time as the tubers expand and seeds are distributed locally by greedy ants and mice. C. coum tends to give its best display in the late winter and spring. On the other hand, C. hederifolium tends to flower in autumn and gives a great display of ornately marbled foliage through the winter.
10. Galium odoratum
This fantastic ground cover plant will happily spread and colonise the dappled shade in a bed under a deciduous tree. The small, low, rosettes of leaves are topped in mid spring by masses of tiny white, highly-scented flowers. It was sometimes called ‘ladies bedstraw’. This is because it was used to make mattresses which would be warm, soft and beautifully scented
11. Digitalis purpurea
The woodland garden wouldn’t be complete without foxgloves. They often tend to prefer dappled shade and not the darkest parts, so will happily self-sow along the woodland fringe, producing tall spikes of tubular flowers. They take two years to flower from seed, growing a rosette of downy leaves in the first year and then flowering in their second, so be careful when you are weeding not to remove them all.
12. Erythronium tuolumnense
Erythronium are sometimes called the ‘dog’s tooth violet’. This is because they produce bulbs that are small white and spiky, looking like a dog’s tooth. The plant couldn’t be more different with broad, oval, waxy leaves and several thin, arching flowering stems, each topped with a small, nodding, star-like flower with swept back petals. They have a dainty elegance, and it is always a joy to happen across a clump just as they appear in spring.
13. Epimedium ‘Amber queen’
Epimedium is a really tough, evergreen perrenial that gives great ground cover in dry shady areas. It is mainly grown for the mid-green leaves that carpet the area around them from summer to late winter, taking on hints of red as the weather cools in autumn. If you are prepared to bite the bullet and cut them back in early spring, you reveal their unusual and delicate sprays of yellow flowers. They’re quite unlike anything else in the garden and a real treat on a frosty spring day.
14. Euphorbia amygdaloides robbiae
I’m a big fan of euphorbia. Their unusual flowers are like nothing else and their zesty lime green colour adds a freshness to the garden in spring. Euphorbia amygdaloides robbiae is often known as wood spurge, giving some indication to the conditions it enjoys. It isn’t particularly tall, but if it’s happy it will spread by underground runners and quite happily fill a patch of dry shade with its glossy dark green foliage and bright green flowers.
15. Astrantia major
Astrantia are herbaceous perennials that will thrive in a good soil and will tolerate both sunny and shady spots in the garden. They produce a mound of deeply lobed leaves at the base and from early summer to autumn, a profusion of their intricate pincushion like flowers are presented at knee high.
16. Dryopteris filix-mas
No shade garden would be complete without a few ferns, and their are millions to choose from. These prehistoric plants have been colonising the planet since the time of the dinosaurs but it seems as though whatever used to eat them has long since passed as they must be one of the most trouble free plants to grow. Just make sure they have enough water whilst they get established. This way, they will thrive in even the dry and shady parts of the garden where little else will grow.
17. Camellia japonica
Apparently, camellias were introduced to the UK by accident. When specimens of the tea bush (camellia sinensis) were about to be sent back to the UK, an eagle-eyed port official realised the economic consequences and switched the plants for the ornamental camellia japonica. The story is probably just a myth, but whilst tea could be grown in the UK, we seem to have enjoyed just focussing on them as ornamentals. You will need an acidic soil to grow them, but they will thrive in dappled shade. Make sure they aren’t allowed to dry out in the summer when next years flower buds are developing.
18. Hedera colchica
Few plants thrive in the shade like Ivy. If you go to any woodland you will find it creeping along the floor and scrambling up trees searching for the light. Some people worry that it will take over, strangling their trees and smothering the garden. Rather than growing the rampant native hedera helix, why not try the larger leaved and better behaved hedera colchica . If you select a variety with strong variegation like ‘Sulphur heart’ you will find it a bit easier to stay on top of, and the variegated leaves give off much less of a ‘Victorian cemetery’ vibe.
19. Iris foetidissima
There is a iris for almost anywhere, and in the shade it has to be Iris foetidissima. It will grow in most soils, but prefers well-drained loamy soils in partial to full shade. Its flowers are not as strongly coloured as the more glamorous bearded Irises. However, the variety ‘citrina’ has lovely pale yellow flowers, followed by large seed pods containing bright orange seeds. This gives them multiple seasons of interest.
20. Geranium sylvaticum
If you are looking to grow a perennial geranium in a shady area, then this variety is probably your best bet. This variety is sometimes called ‘Mayflower’ as it can be relied upon to flower in early May. As with most geraniums, the toothed leaves emerge in spring to form a mound foliage. As spring progresses, clusters of small violet-blue, five-petalled flowers start to emerge. They will sometimes flower again if they are cut back immediately after flowering and given a good feed and watering. Or, you could just leave them to enjoy the pointed seed pods, where they get their other common name of ‘cranesbills’ from.
See all the sections in my Plant Guide here.