Pollinators

40 Winning Plants for Shade

Hosta Photo by Maria Gulley

Hosta
Photo by Maria Gulley

Many of us have yards with shaded areas, but I get a lot of questions asking what the plant options are beyond hostas. Don't get me wrong, I love hostas - there are so many unique varieties, and bees and hummingbirds can't get enough of the flowers. But they are prone to slug and deer damage, and it's not crazy to want a little bit of something different. Below I've come up with 40 different plants for shade - some prefer dappled sunlight, and others can take pretty dense shade. I divided the plants into four categories: shrubs and small trees, perennials, groundcovers, and annuals and tropicals.

Some of the plants that people often pick for shade have been deliberately omitted due to having invasive tendencies (wintercreeper, English ivy), being poorly matched for central Indiana growing conditions (azalea, rhododendron), or other reasons. With the plants that remain, I did my best to pick many different colors and styles. All of these plants should be available for retail purchase, although some may be easier to find at independent garden centers rather than big box stores. If you have a specific need you're trying to fill, never hesitate to ask! I love a good plant selection challenge. Since I'm a bit of a native plant and pollinator nerd, I'm marking species native to Indiana with a * and pollinator-friendly species with a + .

Shrubs and Small Trees

Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora)*+: a large, showy-flowered shrub that tends to form a sprawling colony

Boxwood (Buxus species and hybrids): this evergreen has some shade-tolerant varieties, although they will be less dense in the shade than in the sun

Chokeberry (Aronia species and hybrids)*+: known for its brilliant fall color, this medium sized native shrub also sports edible berries and small white flowers

Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus)*: a lesser known and harder-to-find shrub, coralberry is a low-growing suckering shrub that is perfect for filling low-maintenance areas; white, pink, or red berries in the fall

Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum): there is a Japanese maple for every situation, with a wide range of sizes, habits, leaf colors, and leaf shapes; some varieties are more shade tolerant than others

Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)+: a reliable, low-maintenance shrub with amazing flowers; both dwarf and large varieties available; good dark red fall leaf color

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)*+: a.k.a. Indiana banana, this isn't the showiest tree but it's a good understory filler that makes delicious fruits

Serviceberry (Amelanchier species and hybrids)*+: showy white flowers, delicious early summer berries, and fantastic fall color make this small tree a winner

Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)*+: sweet-smelling white flowers and a tolerance for dense shade make this small shrub perfect for shady back yards

Witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis): this shrub has some of the earliest blooms in the garden with color starting as early as February; there are also varieties that bloom late in the fall around November

Perennials

Astilbe (Astilbe species and hybrids)+: one of my favorites for shade, astilbe has bright feathery plumes of flowers in a range of reds, pinks, whites, and purples

Ferns (such as Cinnamon, Christmas, Autumn): ferns on the whole thrive in shade, and several do quite well in central Indiana; two of our favorites are cinnamon fern and autumn fern

Bleeding Heart (Dicentra species and hybrids)+: with a unique flower and convenient spring bloom time, bleeding heart is an old-fashioned favorite that's regaining popularity

Coral Bells/Foamflower/Hybrids (HeucheraTiarella, and Heucherella varieties)*+: these closely related native species and hybrids come in a range of leaf colors and sizes; they're perfect for getting a warm color palette in the shade

Ice Dance Sedge (Carex morrowii 'Ice Dance'): if you love grasses but have lots of shade, sedges are for you; Ice Dance Sedge has the tamest appearance and its white variegation helps it stand out

Epimedium (Epimedium species and hybrids): I consider this fascinating plant one of the most underused perennials; the spring flowers come in amazing shapes, and the foliage changes color through the year and can be evergreen in mild winters

Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa macra): another pick for grass-lovers, this one comes in greens and golds, and it waves beautifully in the lightest breeze

Lenten Rose (Helleborus species and hybrids): with a February to March bloom season and evergreen foliage, Lenten rose delights year round; be careful around kids though - it's poisonous

Ligularia (Ligularia species)+: the dramatic large foliage (nearly black on some varieties) is matched only by the brilliant yellow flowers that shoot up on spikes in mid summer

Pulmonaria (Pulmonaria longifolia): a low-growing foliage plant with a humble spring flower and interesting spotted patterns of variegation

Snakeroot (Actaea racemosa)*+: with leaves 2-3' tall and white flower spikes up to 6', snakeroot can fill space easily in a shade garden

Toad Lily (Tricyrtis hirta)+: toad lily has fascinating speckled flowers and a late summer/early fall bloom time that keeps the color coming after most plants are done for the year

Astilbe Photo by Maria Gulley

Astilbe
Photo by Maria Gulley

Bleeding Heart Photo by Maria Gulley

Bleeding Heart
Photo by Maria Gulley

Japanese Forest Grass Photo by Maria Gulley

Japanese Forest Grass
Photo by Maria Gulley

Toad Lily Photo by Maria Gulley

Toad Lily
Photo by Maria Gulley

Groundcovers

Ajuga (Ajuga reptans)+: purple flowers in the spring are a special treat, but the low-growing foliage is a delight all year long

Bigroot Geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum)+: there are many kinds of perennial geranium, but only certain species and hybrids are adapted for shade; be sure to check the tag before picking one

Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon japonicus): this short, spreading, grass-like groundcover comes in green and a deep purple that approaches black

Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria majalis): another old-fashioned favorite for its sweet-smelling white flowers, lily-of-the-valley is another poisonous pick to avoid if you have small children

Pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens* and terminalis): in addition to the more readily available Japanese pachysandra, there is also a native species; both are evergreen

Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum odoratum)+: the arching stems and identical oval-shaped leaves are the show-stoppers here, but you'll also find hanging white flowers in pairs in the spring

Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense* and europaeum): another underrated superstar, you can find wild ginger in a glossy European variety or a more plain North American species; both are low-maintenance and trouble-free

Wood Phlox (Phlox divaricata)*+: this native shade phlox is a little trickier to find in garden centers, but its pale blue flowers and popularity with all manner of pollinators make it worth the hunt

Pulmonaria Photo by Maria Gulley

Pulmonaria
Photo by Maria Gulley

Lily-of-the-valley Photo by Maria Gulley

Lily-of-the-valley
Photo by Maria Gulley

Solomon's Seal Photo by Maria Gulley

Solomon's Seal
Photo by Maria Gulley

Annuals and Tropicals

Begonia (Begonia species and hybrids): begonias are faithful, tried, and true; many varieties work in both sun and shade, so if you want consistency this is a great pick

Caladium (Caladium bicolor): sometimes called elephant ears (that name is more often used for other plants), these delicate foliage plants come with foliage in all kinds of patterns of green, white, pink, and red

Coleus (Solenostemon species)+: there is a coleus for every occasion, including some that take full sun as well as full shade; this leafy plant comes in oranges, red, yellows, greens, and combinations of all of the above

Cordyline (Cordyline): also known a ti plant, cordyline is a tropical foliage plant that likes light shade; it's a good upright plant to fill space in containers

Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia): this is currently my favorite trailing plant for containers, and it can also be used as a groundcover; the foliage is an almost yellow lime green in sunnier spots and more green in the shade

Lobelia (Lobelia erinus)+: lobelia offers one of the only true blues in the landscape, and it loves shade; it's a popular pick as a bedding plant or to fill little nooks and crannies in planters

New Guinea Impatiens (Impatiens hawkeri): I left non-new guinea impatiens off the list since impatiens downy mildew has become a major problem, but their cousins New Guinea impatiens aren't susceptible to the disease

Persian Shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus): silvery purple foliage with dark green veins stand on stems that grow to over three feet tall on this stunning shade annual

Philodendron (Philodendron species): there are many kinds of philodendron, but all of them can take the shade; they are also popular houseplants, so bring them inside overwinter to keep a little bit of green in your life

Wishbone Flower (Torenia fournieri)+: another good bedding plant option, torenia comes in purple, pink, blue, white and yellow

Lobelia and Japanese Forest Grass Photo by Maria Gulley

Lobelia and Japanese Forest Grass
Photo by Maria Gulley

Coleus and Creeping Jenny Photo by Maria Gulley

Coleus and Creeping Jenny
Photo by Maria Gulley

Persian Shield By Montréalais - Own work, CC BY 3.0

Persian Shield
By Montréalais - Own work, CC BY 3.0


Recommended Posts

July: Butterfly Weed

Butterfly weed has a PR problem, because if all you hear is its name, the weed part is a bit of a turnoff. But it‘s a gorgeous addition to any perennial garden, and pollinators absolutely love it. It’s a tough plant too, which makes it a favorite for rain gardens, bioswales, and low-maintenance, natural style perennial borders.

Photo by Maria Gulley

Photo by Maria Gulley

milkweed-112338_1280.jpg

Brilliant orange flowers in huge clusters up to nine inches across bloom from the center out in July. The stems below the flowers can be a bit bare and thin, so it’s a good middle-layer plant rather than something you plant right at the edge of a bed. You may know butterfly weed best as the monarch butterfly plant - plants in this genus are the only food source for monarch caterpillars. With fewer and fewer wild places where butterfly weed can grow naturally, bringing these plants into our yards is vital to keeping the gorgeous orange butterflies around.

Common Name: Butterfly Weed, Milkweed

Scientific Name: Asclepias tuberosa

Light: full sun

Size: 18-30” tall, 18-24” wide

Bloom Time and Color: large clusters of bright orange flowers in mid-summer

Notable Varieties: ‘Hello Yellow’ (somewhat compact yellow-flowering variety); Swamp Milkweed, a water-loving, pink-flowering cousin, has similar flowers in a different color and is also landscape-friendly

Soil: tolerates clay soil and dry soil

Other Notes: pollinator-friendly, larval host for monarch butterflies, native to Indiana, deer resistant, interesting fall seed pods

See other plants of the month.



Recommended Posts

June: Tulip Tree

Tulip tree, also known as tulip poplar is Indiana’s state tree. It’s also an attractive, landscape-friendly shade tree that grows at a decent pace and is native to Indiana. Plus it has cool-looking flowers that are a huge hit with bumblebees! It’s a winner all around, as long as you have the space and sun it needs.

Tulip tree became the Indiana state tree in 1931. It was selected for its stately size and form and because it can be found all over the state in mature forests. Tulip trees can become truly massive with trunks over 4’ across. The record-holder for Indiana has a trunk diameter of 280”, or nearly 7.5’ in diameter, and is over 100’ tall. Native Americans used the large trunks to make dugout canoes, and the wood is sometimes used to build furniture today. While tulip trees don’t have many serious pest or disease problems, when they’re under stress they can become susceptible to aphids and tulip tree scale. If you see sticky residue on leaves or on the ground under the tree, take a look at younger stems for tan lumps or aphids, and contact a tree care professional or landscape company with tree experience for diagnosis and treatment.

Common Name: Tulip Tree or Tulip Poplar

Scientific Name: Liriodendron tulipifera

Light: full sun

Size: 60-90’ tall, 30-50’ wide

Bloom Time and Color: green tulip-shaped flowers with cream and orange markings in early summer

Notable Varieties: ‘Majestic Beauty’ (variegated leaves with chartreuse margins

Soil: tolerates clay soil

Other Notes: good golden-yellow fall color, pyramidal form, native to Indiana

See other plants of the month.


Recommended Posts

May: Bluestar

There are a lot of perennials that I think deserve more attention. Bluestar is definitely one of them. This plant has an informal but not messy look, blooms earlier than most perennials, stays put where it’s planted, and has brilliantly golden fall color.

There are a handful of species in the genus Amsonia referred to as bluestar that grow naturally in different regions of the U.S. The two that are easiest to find for sale in the Midwest are Amsonia hubrichtii and Amsonia tabernaemontana, and A. tabernaemontana is also native to our region. They all have in common clusters of pale blue flowers and yellow fall color. The main difference is in foliage texture: A. hubrichtii has an airy, fine texture while A. tabernaemontana has a more substantial presence with wider leaves. They are good for massing in mixed perennials beds, and pollinators love the late spring flowers.

Common Name: Bluestar

Scientific Name: Amsonia species, hybrids, and varieties

Light: full sun

Size: 2-3’ tall and wide

Bloom Time and Color: pale blue flowers in May

Notable Varieties: ‘Blue Ice’ (dwarf variety of A. tabernaemontana), ‘Storm Cloud’ (variety of A. tabernaemontana with smoky purple stems and emerging foliage and deeper blue flowers)

Soil: doesn’t like waterlogged soil, but can take a lot of water if it drains quickly

Other Notes: native to Indiana, deer resistant, pollinator-friendly, good fall color

See other plants of the month.


Recommended Posts

April: Flowering Dogwood

April: Flowering Dogwood

If you ask someone what their favorite tree is, there’s good chance that they will name a spring-flowering beauty. And of those spring bloomers, flowering dogwood is a classic crowd-pleaser. With its snowy white or soft pink blossoms, flowering dogwood stands as a sign that spring has fully arrived at last.

Keep Pollinators Around All Season Long

Keep Pollinators Around All Season Long

If you’ve been following our blog for a while, you have probably picked up on the fact that I’m a big fan of pollinator-friendly landscaping. Pollinators like bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds are responsible for reproduction in many of our favorite landscape and food plants, and they’re fun to watch. Nothing says “summer” to me like watching a garden buzzing with all kinds of pollinators. But summer isn’t the only season these critters are out and about, and one of the keys to ensuring that they maintain healthy populations is to make sure that we’re planting pollinator-friendly plants for the full season.

March: Fragrant Sumac

March: Fragrant Sumac

Fragrant sumac is an adaptable, low-maintenance shrub perfect for even the toughest situations. It thrives even planted in clay, surrounded by asphalt, and battered and dried by full sun. It spreads to form colonies that retain slopes and block out weeds. As long as you don’t plant it in a bog, it will hold the line and even bring some spring and fall surprises just about anywhere.

Form and Function in Midtown

Form and Function in Midtown

The owners of this property in the Meridian Kessler neighborhood of Indianapolis called us in to revitalize their limited outdoor space to turn it from some foundation plantings and lawn into a multi-purpose space that would bring their family outside and improve curb appeal. We completed this project in two phases: first we did a functional overhaul on the back yard, and then a few years later we dressed up the front yard to fit with the new style and feel of the re-vamped back yard.

Beyond Hostas: Shade Plants Galore!

Beyond Hostas: Shade Plants Galore!

Many of us have yards with shaded areas, but I get a lot of questions asking what the plant options are beyond hostas. Don't get me wrong, I love hostas - there are so many unique varieties, and bees and hummingbirds can't get enough of the flowers. But they are prone to slug and deer damage, and it's not crazy to want a little bit of something different. Below I've come up with 40 different plants for shade - some prefer dappled sunlight, and others can take pretty dense shade.