Is it really difficult to grow attractive plant life in shaded garden corners in the United Kingdom with its oft-overcast conditions? No, the good news is that not only can you grow fantastic plants in full shade, you can be spoilt for choice – tiny flowering clumps to huge landscaping ferns, ‘proper’ flowering plants and thick climbing vines…the list goes on.
Sunlight – Photosynthesis – Chlorophyll – Plant life. We all learnt about the importance of that chain of dependencies in school. But it turns out that some plants can make do with only patchy sunlight and a few don’t need any! Such shade-loving plants are a heavensent for siting in those sunless shaded garden corners.
Be aware that heavy shade when combined with low air circulation and crowded foliage creates conditions ripe for pest infestations and disease so do be vigilant for the same and avoid hemming-in plants with other plants.
You can – of course – arrange garden statutary, set up outdoor furniture, or simply plunk a daybed in a shaded garden corner but such ‘easy out’ ideas are not included in this article. As a Gardening magazine we identify plant life that will bring as much beauty and joy in those shaded spots as your more conventional plants do in your garden’s sun-drenched areas.
What is more, though we list a Baker’s Dozen of shade-loving plants, we also identify a particular garden purpose for each one so all your shade-garden needs are met.
1. Ferns – Architectural and Landscaping Purposes
When one talks about shade plants, one has to start with ferns. The Ostrich Fern’s (very) large fronds are as if vivid green ostrich feathers that arch and curve this way and that, and sway in the breeze. Besides a preference for shade, this plant needs dry and cool conditions.
This fern is one for the landscaper as it attains a height of nearly two metres and a spread of over one metre. Tri-coloured Blechnum brasiliense ‘Volcano’ or Brazilian Tree Fern attains an eventual height and spread of about 80 centimetres but it is prized for architectural purposes because of its shape and colour.
The outwardly angled fronds form a conical, shuttlecock shape. The newer, inner fronds are a brilliant red, which turn bronze-purple, eventually becoming a rich green on the outer side of the cone. Both of these are deciduous perennials. Ostrich Fern is fully cold-hardy; Brazilian Tree Fern is frost-hardy.
Also check out giant-sized 4-metre high Royal Fern.
2. Ferns – Greenery and Texture – Evergreen, Decorative, Scented…
We suggest three varieties, all of which are fully cold-hardy. Christmas Fern is an evergreen with intense green leaves which are good sized at about a yard long. It is an easy-care variety that provides year-round colour. It is an excellent choice for greenery, texture, or some robust groundcover at the rear of a shady spot or as a filler.
Japanese Painted Fern is deciduous but is much more decorative and makes for a genuine talking point, and that is because of its foliage. Fronds are silver-green with distinctly reddish stems and midribs. It grows to 45 to 50 centimetres.
For something a bit different, a third option is Hay-Scented Fern. This deciduous variety’s fronds are appealingly filmy and feathery, and turn a hay-yellow in autumn. To top it off, it wafts a mild scent of freshly-cut hay. Who would have thought that shade-loving ferns would give you such different options?
3. Climbing Hydrangea – Vertical Cover or ‘Wall Cover’
Several Climbing Hydrangea varieties are among those rare plants that are entirely indifferent to sun or shade. As such, they will provide lush green vertical cover along walls in your shaded garden area.
Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris is a massive bushy vine that can reach a height of 12 metres and a spread of about six while the not-so-big Pileostegia viburnoides still grows to about 6 metres.
The former has ovate bright green foliage, and the latter, darker, elliptic leaves. Deciduous anomala provides a burst of yellow in autumn before shedding its leaves whereas evergreen Pileostegia stays green year-round. The former bears thick clusters of insignificant flowers and larger, ‘proper’ white flowers during summer; Pileostegia has panicles of small creamy flowers in summer and autumn.
Though both grow very well in full shade, H. anomala subsp. petiolaris is fully cold-hardy while Pileostegia viburnoides is (just) hardy.
4. Heuchera Varieties – Year-Round Highly Ornamental Foliage
Some Heuchera varieties love full shade and we are lucky to have three wonderfully colourful ones among them. In ascending order of size, these are ‘Isla,’ ‘Silver Gumdrop,’ and ‘Guacamole.’
The first is about 25 by about 40 centimetres, the second about 50 by about 40 centimetres, and the third is about 50 by about 60 centimetres – not all that different.
What they have in common is that they are fully hardy, and are clump-forming semi-evergreens. ‘Isla’ has scalloped leaves with silvery dapples and purplish ‘trim.’ ‘Silver Gumdrop’ has flat scalloped leaves that are silver-grey with purple flushes. ‘Guacamole’ has ruffled leaves of a sparkling lime-green hue.
Thus all three exhibit exciting foliage yet all produce a little sideshow in spring and summer: cheery panicles of flowers on upright stems. ‘Isla’s are pink, ‘Silver Gumdrop’s are rose red, and ‘Guacamole’s are white and cream.
But, undoubtedly, it is the eye-pulling shapes and hues of the foliage that’s the ‘main attraction.’
5. Cordyline fruticosa or ‘Good Luck Plant’ – Small Evergreen Tree with Colour
Full-shade Cordyline fruticosa is not a tree, strictly speaking, but it ends up looking like one when it attains a height of 4-plus metres with an impressive spread of 2-plus metres, and as it develops what seems to be a trunk.
Though drought-tolerant it is, unfortunately, not cold hardy and in the U.K. it must be grown in a suitably large planter so that it can be overwintered indoors. The upright habit is accented by a very proportional form. Its lanceolate leaves are themselves quite a sight at 60-plus centimetres.
The young leaves near the centre are a startling magenta-red, and develop red and green zones and blazes as they gradually become a rich, vibrant green. Come summer, the plant puts out scented pale purplish-white flowers on feathery panicles, and in autumn these form into bright red berries. Thus, this striking small ‘tree’ provides year-round colour, with those red tongues taking centre stage.
A native of South-East Asia and Australia, the ‘Good Luck Plant’ is as architectural as it is ornamental. Various cultivars bred for hardiness, colour or height, are available.
6. Actaea Simplex or ‘Baneberry’ – Bushes with Dramatic Foliage and Lush Florets
Actaea Simplex or ‘Baneberry’ varieties are good sized deciduous shrubs that are fully cold hardy. They have a bushy habit and upright stems. Our selected varieties, underneath, range from nearly one metre to over two metres in height, and 30 centimetres through to a full metre in spread.
What they have in common is their richly-shaded, dramatic foliage. The divided narrow leaves come in dark shades of purple-black, maroon-black, bronze, and chocolate. These intense colours will provide an eye-catching offset to surrounding greenery.
All of them produce thick racemes of florets well above the foliage on tall upright spikes during a respectable flowering season from late summer into autumn. These tiny flowers are scented and, like the foliage, come in slightly different colours: white, cream, rosy white, and light pink.
For that shaded spot, try any of ‘Hillside Black Beauty,’ ‘Brunette,’ ‘Mountain Wave,’ and ‘Black Negligee.’ (Actaea Simplex ‘Baneberry’ plants are not toxic; Actaea pachypoda ‘Baneberry’ is the one that is poisonous.)
7. Rhododendron Ponticum – Evergreen Flowering Landscape Hedge
Though a few hundred Rhododendron varieties are suitable for partial shade, one particularly beautiful variety is best suited to full shade – you don’t even have to worry about it.
Rhododendron ponticum is a long-lived evergreen that can hit a massive ultimate height and spread of up to 4 metres each way – perfect for landscaping, and more so as it is heat tolerant, cold hardy, and evergreen.
Notwithstanding its dimensions, R. ponticum is not a tree but a branching shrub that is great to deploy as a screen or a hedge that can be pruned and shaped according to your needs. The thickish rubbery leaves are oval and of a deep, medium shade of green, and stay green year round.
Best of all, in spring it produces dense clusters of very attractive funnel-shaped lily-like flowers that range in colour from pink through magenta to purple.
Be aware that R. ponticum is classified as an Invasive Species in the United Kingdom.
8. Stinking Hellebore – Evergreen Greenery, Shrubbery, Filler
For those shady gaps that you need to fill with dense, brilliant greenery that actually stays green year-round and is very cold-hardy to boot, Stinking Hellebore is a terrific choice. It is also ideal for planting along ridges and verges or for edging along a wall or walkway.
‘Yellow Wilgenbroek’ and ‘Gold Bullion’ are two varieties of choice. Both grow to 50 to 60 centimetres with a spread that is a little less than the height. They have bushy habits, and narrow strap-like leaves.
‘Yellow Wilgenbroek’s have a brilliant rich green hue and ‘Gold Bullion’s are zesty lime-green that start out yellow. They are not merely evergreen, they provide additional interest in the gloom of mid-winter to mid-spring by way of drooping, bell-shaped greenish-yellow flowers.
These are mildly toxic plants and may not be good choices for households with children and pets. As for the curious name, just don’t crush the leaves and you won’t find out why!
9. Lobelia Erinus Varieties – Cascades of Colour for Hanging Baskets
If you have a post, beam, or any projection in full shade from which you’d like to hang a basket, what do you put in it? A Lobelia Erinus variety, that’s what.
Though they are deciduous, frost-tender plants, they provide gorgeous flowing cascades of colour in the dog days of summer and autumn. ‘Sapphire,’ ‘Super Star,’ ‘Regatta Lilac Splash,’ and ‘Waterfall White Sparkle’ are all very compact, trailing varieties. They are so floriferous that at the height of the flowering season the tiny green leaves become virtually invisible.
All produce a mass of small flowers with ‘Sapphire’s being violet with a white eye, ‘Super Star’s being white surrounded by blue, ‘Regatta Lilac Splash’s being white and lilac, and ‘Waterfall White Sparkle’s being pure white.
In a hanging basket, these varieties produce lovely tumbling, cascades that billow in the wind, be the cascade soothing white or arresting purple.
10. Lily of the Valley – Old Europe’s ‘The King of the Golden River’ Atmosphere
Lily of the Valley is a cold-hardy deciduous perennial. It grows to about 25 centimetres and quickly forms colonies via rhizomes; as such, it may be a good choice for groundcover. It bears the most perfect of bell-shaped flowers.
In spring, abundant numbers of these pure-white to cloudy-white bells dangle and nod from upright racemes. Cultivars with double flowers and blush-pink flowers have been developed.
The blooms have a delicate, feminine fragrance that has been a perfume-industry classic for centuries. The white flowers turn into scarlet berries in summer. Lily of the Valley is the plant that saved Gluck’s valley from drought and devastation in John Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River and though it likely won’t have the same dramatic effect on your neighbourhood, it will surely bring Old World charm to your garden. It will also allow you to gift the most expensive cut flower in the world.
This is an extremely poisonous plant and definitely is not a good choice for households with children and pets.
11. Impatiens – Straight-up Flowering Plants for Beds and Containers
A garden ‘standard’ that is perfect for beds and clay pots, and brings oodles of flowers – that’s Impatiens. This genus includes within its array of varieties several that are shade-loving.
They are frost-tender and are grown as annuals.
Your choices are I. walleriana Tempo Series, I. walleriana ‘Cajun Jambalaya Mix,’ I. walleriana ‘Super Elfin Series,’ I. ‘Sun Harmony Deep Orange,’ I. ‘Sunpatiens Spreading Variegated White,’ and I. ‘Sunpatiens Compact White Improved.’
Though these cultivars share a proclivity for shade and a bushy habit, they are very different otherwise. Their heights range from 25 to 60 centimetres with equally varying spreads. They also differ in their attractive foliage as it may be a smoky bronze-green, sober dark green, spanking bright green, or even variegated with a central yellow band, and the margin may be smooth, serrated, or heavily toothed, depending on the variety.
Though all cultivars are floriferous, a few bear flowers only in summer while others continue to produce them through autumn. They are saucer-shaped with five petals with that trademark distal notch, and occur in pure white, and in innumerable bright and upbeat shades of pink, orange, red, and purple.
12. Geraniums for Decorative Mat-Forming Groundcover
We close with those quintessential shade-loving plants which are such a garden favourite, Geraniums. These plants are so diverse in height and habit that they serve very different garden needs.
For our purposes we divide them into two ‘classes’ and propose three choices for each.
All of them are deciduous perennials and all are cold-hardy to some or another extent; however, each is cold-hardy almost throughout the United Kingdom.
G. sanguineum var. striatum, G. × cantabrigiense ‘Karmina,’ and G. macrorrhizum ‘Czakor’ are very compact, spreading cultivars that reach heights of only about 20 centimetres. All three do well in full shade.
Their mat-forming habit means they can be put to use as groundcover. Moreover, they are very pretty as groundcover because G. sanguineum has dark, smoky green foliage that is deeply lobed into leaflets while the other two varieties have rounded and lobed leaves of a light, bright green hue.
Topping it off, the foliage of the latter two varieties exudes a pleasant scent. All three produce delightful saucer-shaped, five-petalled flowers in and around summer. G. sanguineum’s are pale lilac-pink with faint veining, ‘Karmina’s are a pretty magenta-purple, and ‘Czakor’ are an intense magenta. These wee little plants also lend themselves to plugging small gaps and being used as companion accents in planters in the shade.
13. Geraniums as ‘Proper’ Flowering Plants for Beds and Containers
As Geranium × monacense, Geranium nodosum ‘Svelte Lilac,’ Geranium nodosum ‘Julie’s Velvet’ are ‘proper’ flowering plants, let’s get down to their blooms right away.
The hybrid produces curved, saucer-shaped flowers that are a deep rich purple with a pale central disk, ‘Svelte Lilac’s flowers are more open and disk-shaped and are in a pastel tone of pink-mauve with distinct dark veins, and ‘Julie’s Velvet’s flowers are somewhat bowl-shaped in a purplish hue gradated from pale mauve to intense purple with paler edges and pronounced venation.
The petals of the hybrid are pointed at the distal end whereas the other two’s petals are notched. All three are simply gorgeous flowers. These varieties reach a height of about 40 centimetres but monacense has an upright habit, ‘Svelte Lilac’ a bushy habit, and ‘Julie’s Velvet’ a clump-forming one.
The first two produce their lovely flowers from late spring to summer and the third throughout summer into early autumn. All three feature lush green foliage, and all are great choices for shaded beds or containers.
So there we have it. A Lucky 13-Pack of shade-loving plants covering all shapes and sizes from teeny-weeny mat-forming and cascading varieties to big hedges and tall trees.
By all means, set up daybeds, gnomes, and outdoor furniture in that shaded garden corner but don’t forget the plant life – above you have enough options to fill half a dozen shaded spots!