A shade garden was not the first of my priorities when I started gardening. For many years I ignored the shadier sides of my yard and only concentrated on the sunnier areas. Why? Maybe coz all the bright and colorful flowers preferred sun or the garden centers are dominated by the sun loving plants? Then one day a friend divided her hosta and offered me a division. I believe it was a Blue Angel or Blue Hawaii Hosta, which had to be planted as far away from direct sun as possible to keep the leaves blue. And this small gift, I’m sure one that all of us gardeners appreciate the most, started my shade garden and search for the best perennials for shade.
This list only includes perennials that prefer full and part shade. I also am listing only plants that have beautiful blooms, shade garden essentials like ferns and hydrangeas (there are so many that they deserve their own post) are excluded. Without much ado here’s my list of 10 best perennials for shade in the order of when they bloom. I.e. the plants are listed in the order of their blooming season.
1. Hellebore or Lenten Rose
This later winter or early spring blooming woodland native is perfect for adding some cheer to the dreary months. With their dainty downward facing blooms they herald the arrival of Spring in a sure but subtle way. They prefer rich organic soil and are hardy to zones 4-9, depending on the variety. I personally grow 3 varieties, the below Confetti Cake being my favorite, followed closely by the burgundy hellebore. I also have a single white one, my latest acquisition.
By the way, I’m adding a Youtube video with some more extra information as well. Do check it out.
Oh Rhodies, what can I say about these evergreen shrubs! They used to be so common in NJ that I skipped over them many times but last year the picture of a bright red flower on a tag caught my eye. Red, being my favorite color I quickly checked the size of the shrub as my space was small. The full grown size on the tag said around 3 x 4 ft. And so she came home with me, Rabatz rhododendron. To my surprise, when the flowers bloomed they were violet. Clearly a case of mislabeled tags at Lowes! Anyway the blooms are gorgeous so she is staying. Rhodies are generally hardy to zones 4-8, prefer partial shade, and acidic soil.
Azaleas are very similar to Rhododendrons and prefer the same growing conditions as they are both from the same genus. Big difference is the number of stamens in the flower, the lesser being azalea, and the leaf size. Azalea’s leaves are smaller and pliable whereas Rhododendron’s are larger and leathery. Azaleas are also deciduous whereas Rhodies are evergreen.
Also there is a type of Azalea called Encore Azalea that bloom both in early Spring and then again in Summer. My Azalea is an Encore Azalea but behaves strangely in that when all the Azaleas are blooming their hearts out in Spring mine pops out a couple. Come early Fall she goes all crazy and is covered in blooms. Here she is starting to bud out in September. Most Azaleas are hardy to zone 6-9.
4. Bleeding Heart or Dicentra
The only plant on my list that I have actually killed. This was during my initial days as a gardener when I didn’t pay much attention to the plant’s sun and soil needs. Little did I know that this plant prefers full to part shade and rich organic soil. I planted it in full sun, the first year it tried coming back but couldn’t stand the hot and humid summer we have here in VA. This herbaceous perennial is hardy to zones 3 through 9 and blooms mid to late spring.
5. Columbine or Aquilegia
A cottage garden favorite of mine that self seeds like crazy. I’ve had great success with winter sowing these as well. Though in cooler climates they like full sun in our zone 6b, where it gets really hot during the summer it is definitely a part shade plant. They come in many colors, layers, and shapes (around 70 species). I even have one that looks like a fire lantern. They are hardy to zone 3 to 9 and are even drought tolerant.
6. Brunnera or False Forget-Me-Not
This gorgeous plant was a late discovery to me but soon ended being my favorite plant in the shade garden with it’s tiny dainty blue flowers. The plant prefers full to part shade and is hardy to zone 3-8.
Mine is the, Jack Frost – Heartleaf Brunnera, with heart shaped leaves that have a crackle like finish. This variety tolerates heat a bit better than the others.
Again comes in many colors, the ones with the pink, white, and lavender flowers are more common. This picture is from our visit to Ladew Gardens a few years back. They are hardy to zones 3 through 8 and prefer full to partial shade.
Here’s mine with dark brown leaves starting to put out bloom stalks that will soon turn into white spires. I believe it is either Astilbe Chocolate Shogun or Astilbe Cappuccino, not sure lost the tag. Started as a bare root plant I think 2 years back. The darker leafed Astilbes can tolerate more sun than the green leafed ones.
Heucherellas are a cross between Heucheras and Tiarellea or Foam flower, 2 other shade loving perennials. The hybrid heucherella inherited the best of its parent plants, the attractive foliage from Heuchera and the foamy looking flowers from the Tiarella. It is a North American native and is hardy to zones 4-9.
They prefer part shade to full shade and can be grown as ground cover. The variety in my garden, Heucherella Eye Spy has beautiful bubble gum pink flowers that bloom in spring for many weeks.
If you are not already a member of the Hosta fan club then you better join. There is absolutely nothing not to love about them. Their heavily textured and in some cases variegated leaves, lovely blooms (some scented), and the mounding habit are an asset to any garden. Their only problem is that deers and slugs find them irresistible as well. 🙂 Hostas in general prefer rich organic soil and full to part shade. But the variegated varieties can tolerate more sun than the others. They are hardy to zones 3-9.
I grow at least 7 or 8 types of Hostas, yes I know they deserve their on post or rather posts, coz there are so many varieties! Here are a couple more that are in my shade garden bed. You see the one in the top right corner with the lavender blooms? She is the one that started this shade garden.
10. Hardy Ground Orchid
One of my earliest memories of the neighborhood that I grew up in is of a house at the corner of our row in the apartment complex. Frankly I don’t remember the folks who lived there but I do have a vivid memory of the ground orchid hedge they used to have in front of the house. The orchids had lavender blooms and was indeed a sight to behold. Now imagine my surprise when I learned that I can grow a similar orchid here, in ground? This plant was again a start from an avid gardener friend of mine. I planted it in full shade first but the plant struggled in that spot. I have since moved it to its new space, below, and it seems to be thriving along with it’s new cousins, that I added last year. So yes, this is a plant for a partly shaded area, especially one that gets a few hours of early morning sun. This terrestrial orchid, Bletilla striata or Chinese ground orchid, is hardy to zone 5 through 9.
That wraps up my list of 10 best perennials for shade. Interestingly all of these are Spring blooming perennials and most prefer acidic soil. Do you have any favorite shade loving perennials that didn’t make this list?