Having a yard with shade trees has its benefits. Shade trees provide spring flowers, lower summer cooling bills and brightly colored autumn foliage. Their biggest drawback is that shade trees block much of the sunlight other landscape plants need to survive. Many ornamental native shrubs of the woodland understories, however, thrive in partial---2 to 6 hours of sun per day---or full shade. They will perform just as well in shady home landscapes.
Native to woodlands in the southern United States, turkscap (Malvaviscus arboreus) is a spreading mallow family shrub. While they sometimes reach 9 feet high, most shrubs grow 2 to 3 feet tall and wide. Wild plants have pale to medium green leaves. Cultivars with variegated foliage are available. Between May and November, the shrubs have bright red, hanging 2-to-3-inch flowers resembling partially opened hibiscus blooms. Protruding yellow stamens contrast with their petals. Heaviest in late summer and early fall, the flowers draw butterflies and hummingbirds.
Plants grow wild along streams and on woodland edges and slopes, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (LBJWC). In the home garden, they prefer partial to full shade. Full sun results in smaller leaves. Plant turkscap in moist, acidic (pH below 7.0) well-drained sand, loam or clay.
Flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum) is a spring-blooming shrub that brightens wooded slopes from Connecticut south to Alabama and west to Ohio. This 6- to 12-foot-high (and wide) deciduous plant has erect branches with green summer leaves that become soft yellow or red in autumn. Flame azaleas shine for two weeks in May and June when its large clusters of tubular blooms open. Flower colors cover a range of yellows, oranges and reds. Blooming occurs before---or simultaneously with---the emergence of new leaves. Plant flame azalea, advises the LBJWC, in part shade and moist, acidic, well-drained soil. Note that ingesting any part of the plant is toxic.
Thicket-forming, deciduous bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) is native to southeastern United States. It has a distinctive profile, with horizontal lower branches often touching the soil and other branches becoming increasingly upright as they ascend its trunk. A mounding shrub, bottlebrush buckeye usually stands from 6 to 12 feet tall, says the LBJWC. In June and July, it has tall, feathery cylinders (bottlebrushes) of white flowers. Red anthers (pollen holders) and pink stamens (anther supports) contrast with the shrub's green summer leaves. Flowers attract hummingbirds and butterflies.
Fall foliage is yellow green. The plants' nuts, or buckeyes, are vivid yellow. The shrubs retain their leaves longer in autumn than most buckeyes. Give bottlebrush buckeye a partly shady location. Well-drained, thin moist soils over sandy loams or limestone are best. Ingesting its leaves or seeds, cautions the LBJWC, is toxic to humans.