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Shade Shrubs: Bushes That Don't Need Sun

Updated on May 22, 2013

Shade shrubs are a great way to add color and interest to a shady area of your yard or garden. There are numerous shrub varieties that can thrive in light to dense shade, and most will do well in your landscape or home garden. This hub is a profile of ten of the most beautiful, and easy to care for shade shrubs.

What are Shade Shrubs?

Shade shrubs are defined as any evergreen or deciduous shrub that can survive in less than six hours of direct sunlight per day. Some species can only tolerate light shade, meaning they get a few hours of direct sunlight per day. Other varieties can grow in deep shade, meaning they get little to no direct sunlight, but they may not always flower. Read about specific requirements for shade shrubs below.

How Do I Care for Shade Shrubs?

Shade shrubs have special requirements due to their unique growing environment. Keeping the soil moist, mulching, and fertilizing are necessities. To read more about how to care for shade shrubs, follow the link in the resources section below.

Which Shade Shrubs are the Best?

The best shade shrubs will be dependent upon your specific landscape. Determine how much shade your plants will be receiving, and find shrubs that can survive in that environment. Each garden is different, and you may have to experiment with several different shade shrubs before you find the one that works best for you.

Overview of Shade Tolerant Shrubs

Shade Type
Suitable Shrubs
Light Shade
American Holly, Azalea, Forsythia
Light to Deep Shade
Leatherleaf Arrowwood, Inkberry, Japanese Andromeda, Japanese Holly, Mahonia, Japanese Kerria, Rhododendron
American Holly
American Holly

American Holly (Ilex opaca)

American Holly is a medium-sized, broad-leafed evergreen shrub native to the eastern United States. It is one of the best shade shrubs for fall and winter, as it displays beautiful foliage all year. Planted near shade shrubs that drop their leaves in winter will ensure interest and beauty year round.

  • Shade Tolerance: Light Shade
  • Growth Rate: Slow, about one foot per year
  • Growth Period: Spring and summer
  • Lifespan: Medium
  • Maximum Height: 60 feet at maturity, will not exceed 20 feet in 20 years
  • Flowering Period: Mid-spring
  • Flower Description: Small, greenish white to yellow, appear on young branches
  • Fruiting Period: Summer thru fall
  • Fruit Description: Small, red berries
  • Foliage Type: Evergreen
  • Foliage Description: Small, alternate, broad and stiff, yellow-green, shiny above yellow and dull matte below, curved edges with several sharp points
  • Water Requirements: Medium, can tolerate dry or swampy soil

Azalea Flower
Azalea Flower

Azalea

Azaleas are flowering shade shrubs that are part of the genus Rhododendron. They were originally classified as a completely different genus, but were recently recognized as a sub-genre of Rhododendron. These shade shrubs are toxic to dogs if ingested, so keep them away from any area frequented by the family pet.

  • Shade Tolerance: Light Shade
  • Growth Rate: Medium
  • Growth Period: Spring and summer
  • Lifespan: Medium
  • Maximum Height: 10 feet, grows about six inches per year
  • Flowering Period: Late spring
  • Flower Description: Showy, white to purple in color, terminal blooms
  • Fruiting Period: Summer thru fall
  • Fruit Description: Small, black, conspicuous seeds
  • Foliage Type: Evergreen or deciduous
  • Foliage Description: Green, thin and soft, pointed
  • Water Requirements: High, these shade shrubs need lots of water to thrive

Forsythia in Bloom
Forsythia in Bloom

Forsythia

Forsythia plants make beautiful shade shrubs. They are flowering shrubs, and are part of the olive family. Forsythia consists of eleven different species, most of which are native to eastern Asia. The genus is named after William Forsyth, a Scottish botanist.

  • Shade Tolerance: Light Shade
  • Growth Rate: Rapid
  • Growth Period: Spring and summer
  • Lifespan: Medium
  • Maximum Height: 10 feet
  • Flowering Period: Late winter to mid-spring
  • Flower Description: Small, bright yellow, precede leaves, petals joined at base
  • Fruit Description: Dry, capsule-like, contains several winged seeds
  • Foliage Type: Deciduous
  • Foliage Description: Opposite, small and green, serrated or entire margin
  • Water Requirements: Medium, water regularly but don’t over water

Leatherleaf Arrowwood Flower Bud
Leatherleaf Arrowwood Flower Bud

Leatherleaf Arrowwood (Viburnum rhytidophyllum)

Leatherleaf Arrowwood is a species of Viburnum native to various parts of Asia. These shade shrubs are commonly grown ornamental plants that are prized for their shade tolerance and attractive evergreen foliage. They will often grow in areas of deep shade, where other shade shrubs have failed.

  • Shade Tolerance: Light to deep shade
  • Growth Rate: Medium
  • Growth Period: Summer
  • Lifespan: Medium
  • Maximum Height: 15 feet
  • Flowering Period: Mid to late spring
  • Flower Description: Yellowish white in color, large, showy, fragrant clusters
  • Fruiting Period: Late summer to early fall
  • Fruit Description: Red, maturing to black, oval shaped, showy
  • Foliage Type: Evergreen
  • Foliage Description: Opposite, simple dark green leaves with a pointed apex and entire leaf margin, leathery, downy underside
  • Water Requirements: Medium, prefers well-drained soil

Inkberry Foliage
Inkberry Foliage

Inkberry (Ilex glabra)

Inkberry is also known as Evergreen Winterberry, Gallberry, and Dye-leaves. It is a species of shade loving holly native to the Eastern and Southern United States. These shade shrubs are often grown for ornamental purposes and can tolerate deep shade, if necessary. They retain their leaves from year to year, which makes them a great accompaniment to deciduous shade shrubs.

  • Shade Tolerance: Light to deep shade
  • Growth Rate: Slow
  • Growth Period: Summer and fall
  • Lifespan: Long
  • Maximum Height: 8 feet, but will not reach more than 5 feet in 20 years
  • Flowering Period: Spring
  • Flower Description: Small, dull white, inconspicuous
  • Fruiting Period: Summer thru fall
  • Fruit Description: Small, black and inconspicuous fruit
  • Foliage Type: Evergreen
  • Foliage Description: Lustrous, dark green, broader above the middle, alternate arrangement, may develop a purple to plum cast in winter
  • Water Requirements: High, these shade shrubs need consistently moist soil to thrive

Japanese Andromeda Flowers
Japanese Andromeda Flowers

Japanese Andromeda (Pieris japonica)

Japanese andromeda’s are shade shrubs in the heath family, and are native to eastern Asia and Japan. They are widely cultivated in home gardens, and are admired for their beautiful, showy flowers. They have a high drought and shade tolerant and are typically easy to grow and care for. They make a great companion planting to deciduous shade shrubs.

  • Shade Tolerance: Light to deep shade
  • Growth Rate: Slow
  • Growth Period: Spring and summer
  • Lifespan: Medium
  • Maximum Height: 12 feet, but will not reach more than 8 feet in 20 years
  • Flowering Period: Early to mid-spring
  • Flower Description: Small, white, urn-shaped, weakly fragrant, naked red flower buds are present through winter
  • Fruiting Period: Summer thru fall
  • Fruit Description: Small, brown, round, capsule shaped, persisting
  • Foliage Type: Evergreen
  • Foliage Description: Glossy, green, shallow serrations, clustered at tips, new foliage is red in color
  • Water Requirements: Medium

Japanese Holly, Fruit and Foliage
Japanese Holly, Fruit and Foliage

Japanese Holly (Ilex crenata)

Japanese holly is another of the best shade shrubs for areas of light to deep shade. It is a species of holly native to eastern China and Japan. It can also be found growing naturally in Korea and Taiwan. It’s typically grown as an ornamental plant for its dense, attractive, evergreen foliage.

  • Shade Tolerance: Light to deep shade
  • Growth Rate: Slow
  • Growth Period: Spring and summer
  • Lifespan: Long
  • Maximum Height: 10 feet, but will not reach more than 4 feet in 20 years
  • Flowering Period: Mid-spring
  • Flower Description: Small, dull white, inconspicuous, clusters of 3-5 flowers
  • Fruiting Period: Fall
  • Fruit Description: Borne below the foliage and hidden, not ornamentally significant
  • Foliage Type: Evergreen
  • Foliage Description: Dark green, lustrous, shiny in winter, broadest in the middle, alternate arrangement, serrated from base to tip
  • Water Requirements: Medium

Mahonia dictyota
Mahonia dictyota

Mahonia

Mahonia is a genus of more than 70 different species. Several species make great shade shrubs for the garden and landscape. The berries are even edible, and rich in vitamin C, although the sharp taste doesn’t suit many palates. The genus is named after horticulturist Bernhard McMahon, who introduced the plant using samples from the Lewis and Clark expedition. These shade shrubs make great winter additions to the garden, as their leaves turn an attractive purplish bronze color.

  • Shade Tolerance: Light to deep shade
  • Growth Rate: Medium
  • Growth Period: Spring and summer
  • Lifespan: Long
  • Maximum Height: 8 feet
  • Flowering Period: Early to mid-spring
  • Flower Description: Small and showy yellow flower clusters, more abundant towards the tips
  • Fruiting Period: Summer
  • Fruit Description: Clusters, ripen from green to blue-black, resembles clusters of grapes
  • Foliage Type: Evergreen
  • Foliage Description: Compound green leaves, alternate arrangement, new growth is reddish or bronze, turns purple to bronze in winter
  • Water Requirements: Low, these shade shrubs can tolerate slightly drier soil than most others, but still require occasional watering

Japanese Kerria Flower
Japanese Kerria Flower

Japanese Kerria (Kerria japonica)

Japanese kerria, sometimes known as Japanese Rose, is the only species in the genus Kerria. It is one of the few deciduous shade shrubs that can tolerate deep shade. The genus was named after William Kerr, a Scottish gardener, who introduced the cultivar, Plentiflora. This is one of the most popular shade shrubs used for ornamental gardening.

  • Shade Tolerance: Light to deep shade
  • Growth Rate: Medium
  • Growth Period: Summer to fall
  • Lifespan: Medium
  • Maximum Height: 6 feet
  • Flowering Period: Mid-spring
  • Flower Description: Showy, bright yellow single, flowers, will bleach if planted in full sun
  • Fruiting Period: Rarely fruits
  • Fruit Description: Not significant
  • Foliage Type: Deciduous
  • Foliage Description: Simple, alternate leaves, bright green, ovulate shaped, crisp in texture
  • Water Requirements: Medium

Rhododendron hirsutum
Rhododendron hirsutum

Rhododendron

The word rhododendron literally means “rose tree”, and it is one of the most showy and attractive shade shrubs. It is a very large genus containing more than 1000 different species. They are valued for their showy flowers and attractive fall foliage. They can be either evergreen or deciduous, but most all are shade tolerant. The species of these shade shrubs most native to your location will do best.

  • Shade Tolerance: Light to deep shade
  • Growth Rate: Slow
  • Growth Period: Spring and summer
  • Lifespan: Medium
  • Maximum Height: 15 feet, although many species do not exceed 7 feet
  • Flowering Period: Mid to late spring
  • Flower Description: Light to dark pink in color, showy, fragrant, borne in groups
  • Fruiting Period: Late summer to fall
  • Fruit Description: Small, non-ornamental capsules
  • Foliage Type: Deciduous or evergreen, depending on species
  • Foliage Description: Simple, dark green above and light green beneath, alternate arrangement, whorled at tips, attractive in fall – red, orange and yellow in color
  • Water Requirements: Medium

Tips on Shade Loving Plants

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    • Michael Shane profile image

      Michael Shane 7 years ago from Gadsden, Alabama

      Great hub!

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 6 years ago from United States

      Terrific suggestions! Most people, I think, don't realize azaleas are understory shrubs, and they plant them in full sun, which leads to problems. Glad to learn about mahonia; it's a new one for me. Thanks for the info! Take care, DF

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 14 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      I had beautiful azaleas in my old house but sadly we had to move. I still miss them.

    • profile image

      Carla 11 months ago

      Good article!

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