The Saving Grace of Shade

Yesterday, temperatures hit 100 F here in Portland – the hottest day so far of 2012. Compared to other areas of our overheating world, we’ve obviously been spared a great deal of angst and discomfort so far, and should consider ourselves lucky. Even so, spending it – as we did – outside (first at an extraordinarily long swim meet, immediately followed by an outdoor birthday party) – it made me long for the cool, lush benevolence of a shady garden. Preferably one featuring the soothing, refreshing sounds of a water feature nearby, and an endless supply of cold drinks. As my toasted face slowly cooled off, and eventually returned to some resemblance of its original color, I sent grateful thoughts to some of my favorite shade plants that tolerate the lovely, filtered, lower light conditions under taller trees, and on the north side of our house. Together, they help create protective buffers against the unforgiving brutality of the untempered sun. By grouping them together, they create luxurious, cool, mostly green vignettes, that are perfect hiding spots in which to curl up with a good book and an icy, cold drink on steamy, hot days.

First, of course, for these lovelies to be their best, you need to have shade. If you’re starting out with a blank slate, use whatever you have available. This could be topographical or architectural features like buildings, walls or trellises, but nothing does it better than the generous crown of a tall tree. Visually, every garden needs height as well as structure, and not many things will do that better than a tree. In addition, there are numerous other – and even better – reasons to surround yourself with trees. Having mature trees on your lot is directly related to real estate values and – provided they are properly placed – they are instrumental in conserving energy. They are also beneficial to your overall health. In fact, “….visual exposure to settings with trees has produced significant recovery from stress within five minutes, as indicated by changes in blood pressure and muscle tension.” Good tree cover designates more affluent neighborhoods, but even if you don’t already enjoy the luxury of their shade, it’s never too late to plant one. You’ll have to wait a few years for it to develop, but believe me – it is worth the wait. I could go on forever about the many, many benefits of trees. But, since I already covered that in an earlier post, I won’t. Instead, here are photos of a selection of shade tolerant lovelies, that- should you have some – will thrive under those stately trees. Just like the trees would provide the garden framework and ceiling, these plants can help you create “walls” or boundaries, ensure privacy and provide decorative textures, as you furnish your garden rooms to suit your needs.

Japanese aralia is a great, tall growing, large-leaved beauty, that thrives in shade. The leaf texture is fantastic, either in garden vignettes or as part of a bouquet. I use it to screen my shady reading nook from street traffic. It comes with or without variegation. Mine glows glossy and with white highlights from underneath the crown of a towering Southern magnolia tree.

The evergreen Boxleaf honeysuckle comes in several colors, and looks great cascading over a shady wall. It can take lots of abuse. Mine is precariously screening our basket ball hoop, and is surprisingly durable. The small leaves create a great backdrop to other leaf shapes. It too resides under our giant magnolia, and truth be told – I don’t water it very often. Despite relatively dry conditions and obnoxious basket ball encounters, it has not disappointed me yet!

This is a clumping bamboo, with a cascading habit. Like most bamboos, it enjoys regular moisture, and creates a beautiful effect as it drapes over my wall. Many bamboos like sun, but this so called ‘umbrella bamboo’ grows well in shadier conditions. If you only have room for one bamboo – this is a good candidate!

This is a small buttercup winter hazel that I planted a couple of years ago. It grows very slowly, and likes protection from the sun. Patience – it will reward itself in due time. In early spring, the bare branches are full of lovely clusters of butter yellow flowers. It’s absolutely dreamy!

Hydrangeas of all sorts are fantastic in the shade, as long as they receive the moisture they need. If you choose a mophead variety, it will reward you with blossoms for nearly half the year. Exceptional value! The tropical looking leaves in the foreground is a Mayapple (Podophyllum pleianthum) which adds phenomenal interest in the shade garden. Mind you – if the leaves look somewhat yellow, it is probably because it is receiving a bit too much light. The Eastern redbud that was shading it had to be taken out as it was severely afflicted by verticillium wilt. : ( Thinking of replacing it with a Stewartia, or maybe a Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonica)

As a relative of the blackberry, this one can take abuse and still do well. I have it facing east in a corner, sheltering it from anything other than morning sun, but I bet it would survive sunnier locations as well. What sold me on this one is its phenomenal leaf structure. Absolutely beautiful! It is said to survive in Zone 9, but this is Zone 8, and it is doing great! Even during a couple of unusually cold winters, where it died down to the ground, it came back in force. Minimal maintenance!

In our growing zone, Pieris may seem a little mundane, but I have to rally to its defense! In spring, when it exhibits its new pink shoots, it’s absolutely wonderful. you often see this slow-growing plant grossly mutilated into rounded little shapes with a hedge trimmer. This makes me sad as it’s natural form is beautiful. One of next year’s projects is to remove a misplaced rhododendron that is taking up way too much room, and replace it with this shrub. The rhodie came with the house when we bought it. Trimmed to a little ball, there was no way to predict its actual size, but the years have proven that it is of a size that would befit a park setting – not a small city lot. I’m looking forward to replacing it with my Pieris. Granted, it too grows tall, but it has more of a vase shape, so it should be okay.

Great foliage, and heavenly fragrance in late winter and early spring. I planted it along the walkway to our front door, so visitors and passersby get most of the benefit of this plant. Daphnes come in varieties with different blooming times. I think it would be great to buy the ones you need to have that marvelous scent lingering for months on end. Truly a must-have for any garden!

A hybrid between Fatsia japonica and Ivy, this is a climbing plant that does well in partial shade. It too, comes in a variety of colors and variegations, and makes a great backdrop for other, showier plants. If I could only figure out how to make it operate by itself, without having to prune and tie it up to prevent it from flopping over, my happiness with it would be complete.

This is a great plant, and much easier to grow up a wall than the aforementioned Fatshedera. This ones attaches itself to the surface, so you don’t have to provide it with really anything. I have it growing up a brick wall on the north side of our house. Like a hydrangea it has these showy, white, glowing sepals surrounding its flowers, except the sepals of the Schizophragma are heartshaped, instead of rounded. Absolutely lovely!

This Sweet box is a great filler plant. Rather insignificant (yet fragrant flowers) in late winter, followed by black berries, it really is a foliage plant. Glossy bright green leaves are a great foil for others. And yes – the winter flowering is a great asset too.

No list of shade plants would be worthy of its name if it didn’t mention ferns. I’m a total sucker for ferns of all kinds. They are so wonderfully lush and elegant! This particular one is a Japanese tassel fern. In our climate it is evergreen. The groundcover below is Golden clubmoss, a great pick for shady, moist, yet well drained areas. Such great texture!

If you want great foliage and long lasting pretty flowers, not much will beat the hellebores. I wish I had room for all of the many colors and varieties – they are so cool! The leaves stay beautiful throughout the year. Cut them down to the ground in early winter. Soon the lovely buds of the flowers will emerge, followed by new, fresh leaves. The flowers bloom for what seems like months on end. Although they can handle quite a bit of sun, they seem happiest in filtered light.

Every year the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon displays the color variation of Hellebores in a bowl at the YGP show in February. Love it!

The often called ‘Bamboo Iris’ has great droopy “hands” that cascade down. The flowers are a beautiful light blue and yellow in spring. They almost look more like orchids than irises. I have always grown mine in filtered understory situations, and was truly surprised to read somewhere that they like a lot of sun. For me, they have always performed fantastic in the shade! Live and learn, I guess… Either way they contribute massively to a tropical look with their bamboo like stems and large leaves. The flowers are just a great bonus!

Another nodding beauty is the Salomon’s seal – variegated, or not. These Oregon natives love shady environments and look stellar growing out of a lower groundcover like this Veronica. Very elegant, with greenish, white drop-like flowers in spring. They gently spread into larger clumps. Take advantage of this, divide them and spread them around. You will not be disappointed!

Some people don’t like Hostas. I have never been able to figure out why. I think they’re great! A seemingly endless variety of leaf shapes, textures, colors and they are a definite mainstay in shady areas. They anchor all the loftier plants with their tidy mounds and are great in the front of shady borders. Ranging from petite to gigantic, there is something for everyone in their vast family. Hostas go dormant in winter so they are a fantastic when planted with spring bulbs. As the bulbs start do die down, hostas and ferns both start to emerge. They are a great combo!

Great bamboo groundcover for deeply shady areas. The cool thing about it is that new growth is green, as i the photo. As the weather gets colder, it develops these marvelous white margins on the leaves. (See photo below.) This is one of my all-time favorites!

Old-fashioned, yes, but endlessly delicious! My white Bleeding hearts thrive in deep shade. I moved them there when I realized how quickly they started wilting and dying down, when exposed to too much sun. Now their elegant blossoms grace my front steps for two months, if not more. They do get pretty ratty looking as the summer progresses and they start to go dormant, so plant them with something that will visually fill the void they leave behind, come August.

Other lovely, dangly-type plants of great elegance are the fuchsias. They range from real frilly cream puffs to simple, exquisite lanterns. As far as I can tell, they can handle quite shady spots, like the north side of buildings. As long as they get some morning sun, they seem happy! They’re such little works of art – I never tire of studying them up close.

More tidy mounds of dangly flowers – jeez, I think I’m beginning to sound like a broken record! Anyway, great masses of flowers on wiry stems in spring. Lots of different colors, and great with hostas and ferns. So pretty…

Native Oregonian harbingers of spring, these beauties have bright green leaves and lovely flowers. They go dormant in summer but put on a great show while they last. Plant lots of them! They are fantastic, and appear right when you need them for a mental pick-me-up!

Great foliage plant that in summer dies down and makes room for orangey-red berries on a tall stalk. The marbled leaves have a great impact in a shady corner. They spread cheerily where happy! The tulip is Tulipa clusiana ‘Lady Jane’ – one of my favorite tulips. It’s a species tulip, which means that they naturalize easily. As far as I can tell, they are fine both in sun and shade, albeit more prolific in sun. Even so, I appreciate their sudden appearance wherever I least expect it.

Breathtaking bright green texture of Japanese forest grass paired with the low-growing groundcover Ajuga. Both seem totally happy in the shade. The flowing waves of the forest grass is to die for. Every garden should have at least one!

Low-growing, shade-craving groundcover, Mother of Thousands’ name says it all. It will spread freely and looks great at the front of a border. The small, orchid-like, white flowers look almost like moths flying around on their wiry stems. This is another one of those you can’t help being drawn into. Despite their tiny size, they are so sculptural!

This shows up like mini-fireworks in a dark corner! Other grasses I have of the Carex genus are also very shade tolerant (see photo below), but this is by far the showiest. Here is is flanked by our native Maiden hair fern.

By far the cutest low-growing groundcover there is! The underside of its leaves are covered in silvery hairs and the edges are outlined in silver. It faithfully braves both cold, drought and shade, and keeps spreading despite it. A true work horse! Definitely one of my favorite discoveries!

This too, is great for dry shade – Canadian wild ginger! This one has larger leaves and spreads faster than its European cousin. The Euro variety has glossier, kidney shaped leaves and generally looks more tidy than the Canadian version, but I love how this one braves adverse conditions and just grows. My European ginger is new and has not had time to spread out, but I’m attaching a photo anyway, for comparison’s sake. See below…

If you want quick coverage of an area, this might be the one for you! It happily takes hold and multiplies – in sun as well as shade. The leaves are lovely, as are the flowers. Sure, they don’t always stay within the lines, but they aren’t too hard pull out when they go too far. And the benefit of having them far outweighs the occasional inconvenience of treating them like weeds.

I was turned onto these by my late friend MaryKay, and I’m forever grateful to her for that. They are so odd looking – like little furry, purple rockets that shoot out of the ground. They like partial shade, good, humus rich soil and regular watering. Small as they are, they are definitely show stoppers!

Hopefully these photos from my ongoing plant experimentation will serve to inspire you to create your own cool, shady paradise! If you’re not sufficiently motivated to tackle it on your own, I’m always happy to help.


About annamadeit

I was born and raised in Sweden, By now, I have lived almost as long in the United States. The path I’ve taken has been long and varied, and has given me a philosophical approach to life. I may joke that I’m a sybarite, but the truth is, I find joy and luxury in life’s simple things as well. My outlook on life has roots in a culture rich in history and tradition, and I care a great deal about environmental stewardship. Aesthetically, while drawn to the visually clean, functional practicality and sustainable solutions that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavia, I also have a deep appreciation for the raw, the weathered, and the worn - materials that tell a story. To me, contrast, counterpoint, and diversity are what makes life interesting and engaging. Color has always informed everything I do. I’m a functional tetrachromat, and a hopeless plantoholic. I was originally trained as an architect working mostly on interiors, but soon ventured outside - into garden design. It’s that contrast thing again… An interior adrift from its exterior, is like a yin without a yang. My firm conviction that everything is connected gets me in trouble time and time again. The world is a big place, and full of marvelous distractions, and offers plentiful opportunities for inquiry and exploration. I started writing to quell my constant queries, explore my discoveries, and nurture my curiosity. The Creative Flux was started in 2010, and became a catch-all for all kinds of intersecting interests. The start of Flutter & Hum at the end of 2013 marks my descent into plant nerd revelry. I occasionally contribute to other blogs, but those two are my main ones. For sure, topics are all over the map, but then again - so am I! Welcome to my blogs!
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2 Responses to The Saving Grace of Shade

  1. You have so many gorgeous shade-lovers that I’m a little overwhelmed, but I think my favorite is that last Primula vialii. I tried to grow it but it didn’t like the location. I will try again, encouraged by this image!

    • annamadeit says:

      Thanks Jane! Yes, I love that one too. I haven’t had the best of luck with it either. (Don’t think I’ve watered it enough.) But I love it so much I keep trying. Maybe this year will be the one that it survives…

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