Maria is a master gardener and master of public health. She & her husband, known online as The Gardener & The Cook, live in coastal Alabama.
The Many Shades of Green
There is such a great variety of foliage plants that love, and even require shade. They are available in a deep, rich green, blue-green, lime green, silvery-green, green-and-white, even purple-and-green.
They are available in low-growing plants such as fern and hosta, shrubs of many sizes, even vines, such as Virginia Creeper, and English Ivy. I have to admit my favorites are hosta, fern, and caladiums, but I will explore and share photos of others, as well.
Most of these plants can easily take morning sun or dappled light. All require protection from the harsh afternoon sun.
Hosta, A.K.A. Plantain Lily
Hostas are an all-time favorite of most gardeners. While native to Korea, China, and Japan, where they grow in woodlands and along river banks, they are very happy in most of the world.
They are available as tiny plants as small as 6-inches across, up to 2-to-3 feet across. They are also available in a huge variety of shades of green, plus a creamy color, and white. At one time, I had one that was white with green borders. Sadly, I left it behind when we relocated, and I regret that, as I have never seen another one like it.
They need well-drained, fertile soil that is slightly acidic (pH of 6.5-7.5). The darker the color, the more shade they need. They are disease resistant, but snails and slugs love them.
I had better luck with them when I lived in Zone 7. The ones I took with me when we moved to Zone 9a were not happy there, and I haven’t invested in any here in Zone 8b, although I may next year. If you have enough shade, and live in tolerable daytime temperatures, there is a hosta for you – probably many of them. In hotter climates, plant them on the north side of your house.
Ferns are woodland plants (truly wild things), and prefer rich, moist, but not wet soil. They thrive in dappled light, and will not survive deep shade where all light is blocked by dense trees. They are one of the oldest plant groups on the planet, and one of the few, if not the only, plants that have not been hybridized.
They will be happiest on the north side of your home. If you soil needs amending, add leaf mold – rich compost may be too much for them. Be sure not to cover the crown, as this can cause rot, and your fern will likely die.
Where Should They Be Planted?
Depending on where you are gardening, your ferns may die down each winter, then return in spring. Here in Zone 8b, they usually hang around all year. If we have a hard freeze, which we do form time to time, they will begin to look pretty ragged, but as soon as warm temps return, they bounce right back. After the danger of a freeze has past, the damaged fronds can safely be removed.
Can Ferns Be Invasive?
Some ferns, such as Boston fern, are highly invasive. I learned that the hard way when I planted a small sprig in my flower bed in central Florida. Within less than a year, it had taken over the entire bed, crowded out other bedding plants, and suffocated the lower leaves on several poinsettias.
How to Choose a Fern for Your Garden?
Look to see which ferns grow wildly in your area. If they grow along river banks, they may not be happy in your yard unless you have a moist area. If they grow among rocks and crevices, you will need a rock garden to keep them happy. In other words, choose one that grows in the conditions already in your garden.
I have always loved a shade garden filled with ferns and hostas. Nothing looks cooler on a hot day than a fern garden, and there are so many different ferns out there. Whether you want wild, native ferns or cultivated ones, or both. you have plenty to choose from.
Two “Ferns” That Are Not Ferns At All
Both the Foxtail fern (Asparagus densiflorus) and the asparagus fern (Asparagus aethiopicus), are not ferns at all. They have tiny white flowers, and true ferns do NOT bloom.
The Foxtail grows upright, and while it can get large, it does not spread. The “asparagus fern”, however is extremely invasive. The seeds are carried by the wind and dropped by birds, and can germinate in your yard by seed from nearby property. None of my neighbors have this plant, yet I found a tiny one growing in my one of my front beds.
Another of my favorite tropical foliage plants is variegated ginger (Alpinia zerumbet variegata). It, too is grown primarily for its foliage, it, too, has lovely flowers in spring.
This plant can take morning sun, but should be protected from the harsh afternoon sun. It also likes a lot of water. My articles about this plant, Growing Variegated Ginger, and How to Prune Variegated Ginger provide extensive information on this very popular tropical plant.
Caladiums (Caladium X hortulanum) are tender perennial, semi-tropical plants. These guys are grown mostly for their colorful foliage that can range from pink and green, to white, to red, and many shades of green. There are cultivars with large, showy leaves, mostly heart-shaped, and that are occasionally ruffled.
They do bloom, but they are not typically grown for their flowers. From a distance, the flowers often look a lot like flowers of the peace lily or the calla. Another good thing about caladiums: they are typically resistant to animals that often nibble on our cherished plants and flowers. I have another article here on HubPages entitled, The Joy of Growing Caladiums. In it, you will find more detailed information about these gorgeous foliage plants.
These giant beauties will grow to 5 - 6 feet tall, and multiply over the years. In coastal regions and warm climates, they will survive year-round. In colder climates, they die back in late autumn or early winter, but return in the spring. If planted in the coldest climates, they may be killed by hard freezes, and should be taken indoors for the winter season, then replanted when warm weather returns. I especially enjoy them because they provide a little bit of tropical atmosphere to non-tropical regions.
These plants love water, but still need good drainage, so their tuberous rhizomes don’t rot. They are completely hardy in Zones 10 to 11. In colder Zones they will die back in winter, but unless you are in an area with extremely harsh winters, they will come back each spring.
There are over seventy cultivars in this large botanical family (Araceae) that includes many sizes and colors. The one in the photo above is Colocasia esculenta.
I have grown elephant ears for years, but never had one to bloom. I've seen them in many other gardens and garden centers, but never saw one with a flower on it. Then, one day I went out into my garden, and couldn't believe what I saw. A huge flower on my giant elephant ears!
From across the yard, it looked like a calla lily. As I got closer, it looked like a peace lily. Elephant ears are in the caladium family, and this flower looks like a giant version of the small, briefly appearing, flowers on caladiums.
Split Leaf Philodendron
If you have the space for it, split leaf philodendron (Monstera deliciosa) is a great tropical foliage plant, but it does grow quite large. This is another one in the Araceae family. It is not said to be cold hardy in Zones 8-11, but I had two of them in Zone 9a. They were damaged when we had a hard freeze, even though I covered them. So I’m going to say they are not fully cold hardy any farther north than Zone 10.
The roots, leaves, and stems contain oxalic acid, and are considered poisonous.
While this plant cannot take harsh direct sun, it needs bright light. If kept in lower light, it becomes leggy, and the leaves will not split.
In the photo below, you can see where I have broken off the spent leaves. These plants have very shallow roots, and so should be mulched heavily to help keep them cool in the summer heat, as well as to protect them in winter.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 MariaMontgomery