Shrubs

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


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To Shear or Not to Shear? How to Prune Shrubs

It's the time of the year where you're probably starting to think about tidying up wayward shrubs and pruning hedges during the spring growth spurt. But before you grab shears or gas-powered hedge trimmers, let's talk about proper pruning practices and how they differ from species to species. Not all shrubs can be pruned the same if you want them to live long and prosper.

Rule #1 is to put away your electric or gas-powered hedge trimmers. Unless you're maintaining a substantial yew hedge or something like that, this tool doesn't have a place in shrub pruning. They can be useful for cutting back ornamental grasses or other sturdy perennials, but when used on shrubs they can tear and tatter twigs ends and leave the shrub vulnerable to pest and disease problems, along with leaving unsightly dead tips on branches.

Yews are one of a handful of shrubs that does well with tight shearing, as seen in this image of our work. Photo by Maria Gulley

Yews are one of a handful of shrubs that does well with tight shearing, as seen in this image of our work.
Photo by Maria Gulley

Even if you're using sharp, clean hand shears, a tight globe or box look is not suitable for every shrub in the landscape. For some species, this kind of pruning can result in poor internal structure that leaves huge holes in the shrub if even a single branch is lost. Pruning shrubs into uniform shapes can also rob them of the beauty of their natural form. We pick shrubs not just to provide a desired flower color or fill a space; when we design we take into account the natural shape and texture of a shrub, and if you shear a shrub that isn’t meant to be sheared, you’ll lose its natural beauty. You can also be giving yourself a headache, as some species will fight back with aggressive shoot growth after shearing. If you've ever tried to shear forsythia, you know what I'm talking about.

However, there are times when you want or need the clean formal shapes that a pair of hedge clippers can bring. The following species tolerate shearing well: arborvitae, yew, boxwood, privet*, barberry*, and burning bush*. When shearing a hedge, keep the top slightly narrower than the base. Hedges that are narrower at the bottom often end up thin and scraggly at the bottom because sunlight can't reach the lower branches.

Diagram of proper shrub pruning to reduce overall size. Click to view larger.

So how do you keep other species of shrubs in check if shearing isn't an option? Selective pruning is the process of removing individual branches to control the size and shape of your shrub or promote without destroying its natural shape. Branches can be cut back where they connect to a larger branch or snipped off just above a lower bud. If it seems like the bush is getting too dense and crowded, limbs can be removed all the way down to the ground. Make sure you look twice and cut once so you don't accidentally remove a limb that will leave a bare spot. This may be unavoidable at first if you're switching from shearing to selective pruning, but with time it will be easier. See the diagram on the left for an illustration of selective pruning.

If this seems like a lot of work, don't worry. Once you ditch the shears and pick up the hand pruners, you'll notice that your shrubs need considerably less taming. You will rarely see long, leggy shoots springing up left and right once you switch your methods and stick to it. Instead you'll just be removing the occasional wayward shoot and periodically reducing the shrub's size. If your shrubs have been sheared for so long that you are left with dense growth on the outer few inches and twiggy, leafless growth on the inside, then you may need to resort to renewal or rejuvenation pruning to bring it back to a healthy habit.

Forsythia especially dislikes shearing.  By Rdsmith4 - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5

Forsythia especially dislikes shearing.
By Rdsmith4 - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5

One last consideration in pruning is timing. Pruning should be done when the plant has the most time to recover, such as early spring or early summer (unless you're cutting just a few stems - you can do that any time without doing the plant any real harm). If you prune in the hottest part of the summer when your shrub is already stressed, you can increase the plant's stress and make it more vulnerable to other problems. Pruning in the fall can encourage new growth that won't have enough time to mature before freezing temperatures arrive, especially if you're shearing a hedge. Flowering shrubs need to be pruned at different times of year depending on when they flower. Spring blooming shrubs usually develop next year's flower buds during the summer, so it's vital that you prune immediately after flowering so you don't remove next year's flower buds. Summer blooming shrubs usually bloom on new growth, so they should be pruned after flowering, but before new growth starts in spring. Some shrubs can be pruned at any time, because they bloom on both new and old stems. Below I've listed some common flowering shrubs by optimum pruning time.

Prune in spring immediately after flowering:

  • Deutzia (Deutzia gracilis)

  • Forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia)

  • Rhododendron and Azalea (Rhododendron species)

  • Thunberg Spirea (Spiraea thunbergii) (varieties include 'Ogon')

  • Lilac (Syringa species)

  • Viburnum (Viburnum species)

  • Weigela (Weigela hybrids)

  • Dwarf Fothergilla (Fothergilla x gardenii)

  • Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia and melanocarpa)

  • Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea)

  • Oak Leaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)

  • Big Leaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla)

Prune before spring growth:

  • Butterfly Bush (Buddleia hybrids and species)

  • Beautyberry (Callicarpa species and hybrids)

  • Smooth Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens, varieties include 'Annabelle', 'Incrediball', 'Invincibelle Spirit')

  • Hardy Hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata, varieties include 'Limelight', 'Pinky Winky', 'Quick Fire')

  • Sumac (Rhus species)

  • Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)

  • Summersweet Clethra (Clethra alnifolia)

  • Bumald Spirea (Spiraea x bumalda, varieties include 'Anthony Waterer')

  • Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)


Prune before or after blooming:

  • Reblooming Hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla, specific varieties such as Endless Summer series)

  • Knock-Out Roses (Rosa Knock-Out hybrids)

  • Japanese Spirea (Spiraea japonica, varieties include 'Little Princess', 'Goldflame', 'Magic Carpet')

Azalea Photo by Maria Gulley

Azalea
Photo by Maria Gulley

Dwarf Fothergilla Photo by Maria Gulley

Dwarf Fothergilla
Photo by Maria Gulley

Smooth Hydrangea Photo by Maria Gulley

Smooth Hydrangea
Photo by Maria Gulley

Knock-Out Rose Photo by Maria Gulley

Knock-Out Rose
Photo by Maria Gulley

I've provided some additional resources on pruning shrubs below. Feel free to direct any other questions you may have to me. Good pruning practices are essential to the long-term health and beauty of your garden, and we’d like to help. Contact us to learn more about what our maintenance team can do for you.

Additional Resources:
Pruning Ornamental Trees and Shrubs (Purdue University Extension)
Shrub Pruning Calendar (Virginia Cooperative Extension)

*Privet, barberry, and burning bush are considered invasive and should be avoided. Privet and barberry are included in Indiana’s newly adopted list of banned invasive plants, and they will not be available for purchase within a few years.


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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.

Salt Tolerant Plants

Salt Tolerant Plants

While we haven’t had a lot of huge snow events this year, almost every week there’s enough of a risk of snow or ice to put down road salt at least once. Over time, this salt can splash onto parking lot and roadside plants enough to damage the foliage, or temporarily shock the soil with too much salt for the plant roots. Salt draws water out of plant cells and leaves them looking burnt and stunted. In cases of soil salt accumulation, sometimes it just looks like a plant is smaller and struggling compared to the same plant a few feet further back from the street.

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August: Panicle Hydrangea

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February: Groundcover Junipers

February: Groundcover Junipers

Junipers come in a range of shapes, sizes, and colors. The one thing that unites them all is year-round color and rugged winter hardiness. Today we're focusing on low-growing, spreading junipers that we'll lump together as a group and refer to as groundcover junipers.

Make Your Yard a Winter Wonderland

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Winter is upon us, and the world outside our windows has become a lot more grey and dreary. When we approach a new design, it is not at all unusual for the client to request that we include plants that will look interesting all year round. For most, their mind will automatically turn to evergreens, but there are so many more plants that can light up the winter landscape in other ways.

January: Coralberry and Snowberry

January: Coralberry and Snowberry

After the bright lights and colors of the holiday season it can be nice to settle down with a little subtle color left in the landscape after the lights come down. Close cousins coralberry and snowberry are great picks for low-key, hazy winter interest. It's definitely not a plant for a formal garden, but if you have more of a natural style or if you're looking to add a little something special to a wooded edge, this may be just the thing you need.