Plants for shade is a well-covered topic online with a number of lists with the usual suspects suggested. Hostas, Astilbes and Ferns being the front-runners. It got me thinking though. What about those difficult shade borders, the ones that are dry, lacking in nutrients or get wind blasted? Where even a trusty Hosta would struggle. So here is my list of the top 10 super tough plants for shade!
If you’re like me and have a nightmare garden border that’s both shady and awkward then this guide is for you! I’ve recently been planting up my driveway to mixed success. It’s shaded, dry, windy and has competition from both a hedge and mature trees. It’s enough to make you give it up and simply bark mulch the lot. Hostas and Ferns are lovely but still require damp conditions, even they won’t survive let alone thrive in this garden dead zone.
I’m a tenacious soul though and have been working out through trial, and some error, what alternative plants will work. Here are my findings of real terminator shade-loving plants!
1.Thalictrum ‘Black Stockings’
My first unusual plant for shade is Thalictrum ‘Black Stockings’. Hold on a second, isn’t Thalictrum a plant that needs damp conditions?! Well, apparently not! I’ve been growing Thalictrum in the driest part of my shadiest border and its been putting on an amazing show now for 2 years. Apart from needing to be staked at times, it has been a real winner.
2.Galium odoratum – Woodruff
Natures version of Febreeze, Sweet Woodruff was used for centuries as a herb and an air freshener! Woodruff is an excellent creeping plant that will provide you with a carpet of green foliage and white flowers. It can be invasive. However, before you all go pulling your face at poor Woodruff hear me out. If you’re looking for a carpet of green with dainty flowers in an otherwise dead zone border than I’d argue to give it a go. Windproof and happy to be neglected. Whats the worst? You can always use a spade to keep it in control or plant it towards the edge of a border with a natural barrier.
3. Silene fibriata – Bladderwort
Also known with the glamorous title ‘Bladderwort’ this dry shade queen will happily grow up to 70cm. It loves to be divided, a bit like British politics. Once established it will survive the drought and reward you with fimbriated (which means sporting a fierce fringe) white flowers. It’s great for some height and to fill awkward spots. If it gets too vigorous divide and conquer!
4. Hebe ‘Purple Pixie’
Hebes are my unsung heroes of garden design. Not only are they super hardy, but the majority of them are hardy evergreens. Which gives you great structure during the winter months. Purple Pixie is a super cute cultivar with dark greeny-purple leaves (yes that colour does weirdly exist) and purple spikes of small flowers. It takes a little bit of care and attention to establish in a dry area. So use lots of compost to backfill, mulch and water frequently, but once settled she will be just fine with the odd dry spell.
5. Pulmonaria officinalis – Lungwort or Mary’s Tears
Pulmonia is the good time girl of awkward shade and some dry spells. Once she gets going, she will happily spread herself about the border with her polka dot leaves. Pulmonaria is super promiscuous and you will even find two different coloured flowers on the same plant. Easy to divide with a spade in spring and mega low fuss. Again water well to get established then leave it to do its thing.
6. Cornus elegantissima – Red-barked Dogwood
Not all shade loving plants need to be low growing foliage sisters. This Cornus or Dogwood will get you the height your sad shady border may need. It has variegated leaves against dark red crimson stems and in the winter when it drops its leaves you get vivid red stems for a bright display of heat. Once they get to your prefered size you can lift and split easily or just prune out the unwanted growth. Not many people tend to consider this as a plant for shade, but trust me you’ll be glad to buck the trend!
7. Actea simplex was Cimicifuga or Bugbane
So Actea has had a name change recently from its original Cimicifuga (which I quite like as it sounded like a fun cocktail spirit). It’s often seen at Chelsea as a good foliage plant but the real win with this plant is the Autumn flowering window. When everything else is going underground for a rest Actea is ready to send up massive spires of white flowers! Needs some moisture or it will wilt but its a great shade lover. Use the darkness against lighter plants like the Silene.
8. Lamium galeobdolon – Yellow Arch Angel
Lamiums are a gorgeous specimen in my opinion and underrated. Lamium is a wildflower in origin and is also known commonly as non-stinging nettles. The bright yellow hoods of the flowers are great as pollinators for insects. They will tolerate shade but do need damp conditions. I find this specimen a good rival to replace Ferns if you’re looking for something a bit different. If it gets tatty simply hack and slash back to a neater stem. It will happily survive brutal pruning.
9. Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold’
So it wouldn’t be a definitive list without a grass specimen, or a sedge that most people mistake for a grass. Gosh, its a confusing taxonomic world isn’t it with plants? Anyway here is our member of the Sedge family; the Carex (the handwash has a lot to answer for). Evergold has a beautiful variegation on the leaf and providing its not in complete shade will work with both a mild drought and some dappled shade. Given its form, it makes for a great border plant to be placed at the front. So why not give it a go?
10. Heucheras (multiple varieties!)
Heucheras go in and out of fashion quicker than hashtags. I love a nice selection of Heucheras with their maple-shaped leaves and mini spires of flowers. They come in thousands of varieties with some really fun names like ‘Marmalade’, ‘Plum Pudding’ and ‘Electra’. They are semi-evergreen and will provide a blast of colour in shade.
Why are some plants purple?
A top tip is that the darker foliage Heucheras may respond better to shaded borders compared to their green or yellow counterparts. This is because the purple of their leaf can absorb more green light than green counterparts and less red or blue light. Greener plants absorb the blue and red light more easily and tend not to absorb as much if any of the green light. Purple plants also contain more Anthocyanin than Chlorophyll (which makes the human eye see plants as green). Making it a great plant for shade where other Chlorophyll rich plants may not be using the green light. Basically they can use up wasted parts of the colour spectrum.
It also acts as a sunscreen to the plant as purple plants contain less Chlorophyll than green coloured plants. So they require less direct light as well. In forest floors and the tropics, you will often find the underside of leaves of some plants also have a purple hue to capture this green light that bounces off other plants to make the most of the restricted light levels. Waste not, want not! Science lesson over!
Whether it be dappled shade or dry full shade, this list of plant heroes offers you more choices for those awkward borders. It’s not that I don’t love Hostas, Ferns and Astilbes but you three have hundreds of recommendations online and its time that some of the chorus lines got their 5 minutes in the spotlight!
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