Filling the woodland garden with shade-tolerant shrubs costs more than planting less expensive herbaceous perennials or ferns. A long-lived woody shrub that tolerates the deep shade under large trees adds structure to the design and creates a transition from the tall trees to the forest floor. Choose shrubs well-suited to your climate, especially the winter's cold.
Deciduous shrubs, those that lose their foliage in autumn, include species that provide lovely flowering and those that provide more of an ornamental foliage effect. Shade-tolerant flowering shrubs for a woodland garden include the oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifola), big-leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla), summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), witchhazel (Hamamelis spp.), spicebush (Lindera benzoin), Japanese kerria (Kerria japonica), yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima), winterhazel (Corylopsis spp.), enkianthus (Enkianthus spp.), painted buckeye (Aesculus sylvatica) and bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) and Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus). Certain species of wild, native azaleas (Rhododendron spp.) become deciduous in winter, too.
Deciduous shrubs noted for their pretty leaves or berries include disanthus (Disanthus cercidifolis), beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), alpine currant (Ribes alpinum) and dusty zenobia (Zenobia pulverulenta).
Needled Evergreen Shrubs
The evergreen, needled foliage adds a feathery, fine texture to woodland shade settings. Any dwarf variety of hemlock (Tsuga) or yew (Taxus) grows well in medium to heavy shade. Plum yews (Cephalotaxus fortunei and Cephalotaxus harringtonia) and stinking cedar (Torreya taxifolia) grow best where winters become no colder than -10 to 0 degrees Fahrenheit. In subtropical forests consider planting podocarp (Podocarpus macrophyllus and Podocarpus salignus).
Broadleaf Evergreen Shrubs
A good array of evergreen shrubs with broad, rounded foliage provide year-round greenery and become especially welcome in winter to add texture to dreary, dormant woodlands. The quintessential broadleaf evergreen shrub is the rhododendron and evergreen azalea (Rhododendron spp.). Another flowering shrub to note is lily of the valley bush, or pieris, (Pieris floribunda and Pieris japonica). Winter-occuring flowers develop on camellias (Camellia japonica, Camellia reticulata and Camellia oleifera) while tea (Camellia sinensis) and sasanqua (Camellia sasanqua) bloom in autumn.
Other shrubs to consider include Alexandrian laurel (Danae racemosa), sarcococca (Sarcococca spp.), needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix), Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.), anise tree (Illicium spp.) and tea-olive (Osmanthus spp.). Privet (Ligustrum spp.) also grows in shade, but some species shed seeds and become invansive, taking over with many plants in the garden. Generally speaking, more choices for broadleaf evergreens exist for gardeners who live where winters are not too cold or windy.