Shade-Loving Flowering Plants for a Woodland Garden
You Can Plant Flowers in the Shade
The shady areas around our homes are pleasant, but often they are bare spots devoid of flowering plants. Many perennials, annuals, and shrubs that can brighten up those partially shaded to fully shaded areas near or under trees, or on the north side of the house.
Some shade-loving plants offer colorful or variegated foliage to brighten up those dark areas. Others produce lovely flowers.
Before you choose a new plant, define the type of shade in the section of the yard where you want to plant it. Below is a classification of types of shade, and then a list of shade-loving plants and their requirements.
Types of Shade
Moist and cool shade on the north side of the house offers an excellent environment for several shade-loving plants. Ferns, while not flowering plants, present an attractive show, with their delicate leaves and arching fronds.
Partial shade means shade for four or five hours during daylight hours. Many plants that prefer partial shade will do best in morning sun, as the afternoon sun in hot summer months may be too intense.
Light shade areas are shaded for two to four hours during daylight hours. Even some sun-loving plants can thrive in this type of light, especially in hot regions of the South or if they get sun in the afternoon.
Filtered shade means a sun-dappled area, under or near a tree that does not provide a thick canopy of foliage.
Full shade. Some spots on the north side of the house, or under or near large trees, receive no sun at all.
Dry shade includes fully shaded areas beneath large trees that do not receive a lot of moisture from rain due to the heavy foliage. But even dry-shade-loving plants need to be watered thoroughly when first planted in order to establish a healthy root system. Mulch to retain moisture.
List of Plants
In the descriptions below, the zone numbers refer to the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, a handy reference tool used to determine if a plant is compatible with the minimum temperatures in your region of the United States. Of course, there are micro-climates (smaller spots in a hardiness zone that are cooler or warmer than the surrounding areas). This tool doesn't help you with soil types, moisture, or other conditions.
Astilbe, or False Goat's Beard, is a hearty and trouble-free perennial that prefers soft soil (add humus or peat) and partial shade. Astilbe has feathery, fern-like foliage and sends up plumes of flowers in pink, white. lavender, and red in summer.
Plant in moist, well-drained soil. Divide the roots in spring or fall every three or four years. US Zones 4 - 9.
Azaleas are beautiful woody shrubs in the rhododendron family that come in a vast array of colors and types. Many azaleas are evergreen in warmer climates. Azaleas bloom in spring, when the shrub is covered with brilliant flowers in white, pink, violet, or red. Yellow and orange hybrids exist but may be more difficult to grow.
Plant azaleas in light or dappled shade in moist, well-drained soil. Water often during hot, dry summer months and feed with a fertilizer for acid-loving plants. Prune just after flowering. Azaleas do not tolerate extreme cold, and some evergreen azaleas lose their leaves in colder areas. Some azaleas are more cold-tolerant than others, so check the tag carefully.
Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis) is an old-fashioned, two- to three-foot tall cottage garden favorite that likes partial to full shade and moist, well-drained soil. This bushy perennial produces small heart-shaped blooms on arching stems in early spring. The attractive, lobed foliage goes dormant in summer, turning yellow. Plant in US Zones 2 - 7.
Brunnera produces tiny, brilliant blue flowers in early spring. Grow in partial to full shade. The heart-shaped leaves can also be variegated. This slow grower will not need frequent division and will eventually form large clumps. Keep moist to avoid browning at the edges of the leaves. Brunnera is a perennial grown in US Zones 3 - 7.
Coral Bells or Heuchera is an easy-care, heat-tolerant perennial, with 6 - 18" tall foliage that resembles the leaves of geraniums, and produces spikes lightly covered with tiny flowers in pink, red, and white. Coral bells prefer alkaline soil.
They bloom in June. Deadhead for repeat flowering. Coral bells prefer partial shade to full sun and moist, well-drained soil in US Zones 3 - 9.
Foxglove or Digitalis purpurea is a tall plant with tubular flowers that grow on 2 - 5' spikes, a showy attractive plant for dry partial shade. Foxglove is a biennial plant that forms a rosette of leaves that grow low to the ground the first year, sending up flowers the next. It often reseeds, so after a few years, you may have foxgloves blooming every year. Plant in well-drained, acidic soil; add humus.
Foxglove attracts hummingbirds. The plants are poisonous. US Zones 3 - 9.
Hellebore (Lenten Rose)
Lenten Rose or Hellebore is an attractive perennial, blooming in late winter or early spring, that has become recently more popular. This old-fashioned plant will grow for many years without needing to be divided. Hellbore enjoys partial to full shade, making it an excellent addition to a woodland garden. US Zones 5 - 9.
Hosta is a low-growing (2' tall) perennial plant with large, heart shaped leaves that come in several shades of green, including bluish green as well as variegated forms. Some varieties feature bubbled leaves. Hosta prefers light to full shade and has become very popular due to its propensity to spread. Plant the blue-leaved types in full shade, and gold-leaved varieties in full sun.
Hostas bloom in summer with spikes of narrow, tubular flowers, some of which are sweetly aromatic. Make sure they have plenty of water in the hot months. Remove dead leaves in fall as the fallen, rotting leaves will attract slugs. Plant in US Zones 3 - 9.
Wood hyacinth or Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) is a bulb that will grow in light shade, partial shade, or full shade, and does well planted under trees. The tiny, bell-shaped flowers appear in late spring, in white, light blue, blue-violet, or pink. Wood hyacinth is poisonous and can cause skin irritation when touched by sensitive individuals. It is deer-resistant. Wood hyacinth can be invasive in some areas, including the Northwest US and the UK. It is native to southwestern Europe and northern Africa. US Zones 3 - 9.
Impatiens is a popular bedding plant, used as an annual in areas with cold winters, or as a perennial in warm southern climates. The low-growing plant has small, ovate leaves and enjoys light to full shade and moist, well-drained soil. Impatiens provides bright, colorful blooms in pink, rose, lilac, orange, white, or bicolor all summer long without deadheading (the removal of dead flowers). Pinch back stems early on to encourage branching. US Zones 1 - 11.
Lily of the Valley
Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) is an easy-to-grow, spreading perennial that enjoys partial to full shade. The 8" plant has sword-shaped leaves and bears white flowers resembling tiny bells in April or May. Also called Mary's tears and little maybells, lily of the valley is poisonous. The flowers are highly and sweetly aromatic.
Plant the rhizomes, called "pips," in moist well-drained soil in spring or fall, deep enough so just the tips show. If planting in spring, soak the pips in lukewarm water first for several hours. Water after planting. Mulch in winter to protect roots. US Zones 2 - 7.
White trillium (Trillium grandiflora) or wood lily is native to the eastern United States. It prefers light to partial shade and moist, humus-rich, well-drained soil. This woodland plant grows about 12" tall. Three broad, ovate leaves surround a 3" white flower that turns pink, then red as it ages. US Zones 2 - 8.
When planting shade-loving plants, remember to improve and enrich the soil with compost, peat, or humus. Many of these plants are adapted to life on the floor of mature forests, in soil with abundant organic matter from years of falling leaves or needles. If planting a new area, dig down six to ten inches, add the compost or other enriching agents, and mix it with the existing soil. But do not dig down into, or chop, tree roots, as you can cause permanent damage to the tree.