Brightening the shady spots in your yard with colorful plants can be a challenge. Shady areas pose two problems. The objects creating shade, whether trees or structures, may block moisture as well as light. Trees will also consume soil nutrients that shrubs need to survive. Even with these challenges, some ornamental shrubs don't simply tolerate shade. They require it.
Korean Rhododendron 'Cornell Pink'
Korean rhododendron (Rhododendron mucronulatum) grows 4 to 8 foot high and wide; the shrub is native to Korea, northern China and Japan. Unlike most rhododendrons, this shrub loses its leaves in the autumn. Hardy to USDA hardiness zone 4 (minimum winter temperatures of minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit and higher), it blooms in early spring. The 'Cornell Pink' cultivar of this shrub, says the Missouri Botanical Garden, may bloom earlier than any other rhododendron. Its pink flowers appear at the end of leafless branches in late April to early May. Elliptical, pointed green leaves follow, providing yellow or red fall color.
'Cornell Pink' works in groups or as a specimen plant in shade and woodland gardens. It needs acidic (pH below 7.0), consistently moist, rich, well-drained soil and part to full shade. Plants in sunny locations risk to losing their buds to spring frost. Those in poorly drained soil develop root rot.
Aralia (Eleutherococcus sieboldianus), another deciduous shrub hardy to minus 30 degrees, usually stands 8 to 10 feet high. The 'Variegatus' cultivar is smaller, at 6 to 8 feet high and wide. Lobed green leaves edged with white account for its name. Aralia's stems have sharp spines where they join its leaves. The shrubs produce small umbels (umbrella-like clusters) of greenish-white flowers between May and June. They're grown primarily for their foliage.
Disease-and-pest-resistant "Variegatus" is an ideal choice for shrub borders, as the background in perennial borders, and in shade gardens. It also tolerates full sun, drought and pollution, and almost any soil. Remove its root suckers promptly unless you want the plant to naturalize.
Leatherwood (Dirca palustris) is an ornamental shrub hardy to zones 3, with minimum winter temperatures of minus 40 degrees and higher. Native to the woodlands of the Eastern United States, it's somewhat rare in the wild. Normally standing 4 to 6 feet high, leatherwood has March and April clusters of tiny, bell-shaped pale yellow flowers. They bloom before its leaves emerge. Light green new leaves deepen to dark green in the summer and become yellow in the fall. The shrub's leaves, fruit and leathery bark are all toxic. Plant leatherwood in part to full shade and rich, acidic, consistently moist soil. Plants in the sun may suffer from loss of leaf color.