Stars of Shade
by Barbara Blossom Ashmun
Plants with fascinating leaf shapes and variegated foliage can turn your shade garden from a drab, dark place to an intriguing cool retreat. With enough plant savvy, you'll want to create shady places just to provide a home for the many unusual perennials and shrubs that thrive in low light.
But first, check one important factor. is your shade dry or damp? Then choose shade-lovers that suite your site. Thirsty tree roots in your own garden, and even in adjacent gardens, can use up all the available moisture, leaving ground nearby parched. My neighbor's laurel hedge and fruit trees are on the other side of the fence, yet still dry out beds yards away in my own garden.
Tough Perennials for Dry Shade
Bishops' hat (Epimedium) is at the top of my list for dry shade. It's an evergreen ground cover with heart-shaped leaves at the top of long, sturdy stems, which makes them very suitable for flower arrangements. I love to cut Epimedium leaves for bouquets year-round. In spring the bright green foliage is flushed with bronze; in summer it turns green; and in fall and winter it becomes deep oxblood. Handsome at all seasons, in early spring bishop's hat is embellished by sprays of tiny flowers that resemble miniature columbine. Depending on the species, flowers are red (Epimedium x rubrum), yellow (Epimedium x versicolor), white (Epimedium x youngianum 'Niveum') and even lavender (Epimedium grandiflorum 'Lilofee').
I especially love Epimedium 'Frohnleiten' with yellow flowers and red-flushed foliage. You might like to combine it with Epimedium x youngianum 'Roseum', which has lavender-pink flowers, or you might prefer to contrast it with an entirely different perennial. In my own neighborhood a handsome front yard planting marries Epimedium versicolor with evergreen Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis), which blooms as early as January, with pendant flowers in shades of pink, cream and even maroon. Its handsome lobed leaves are a delightful contrast to the heart-shaped foliage of Epimedium.
The sight of winter cyclamen's (Cyclamen coum) hot pink flowers on a frigid January day will warm your heart. These are corms, that look like little brown knobs at planting time, and bloom in the dead of winter, even through a carpet of snow. The leaves that follow the flowers are equally beautiful--green discs, marbled with silver. Cyclamen develop slowly over the years into colonies, the corms increasing in size and the flowers forming seed that ripens and germinates readily, so that seedlings paint drifts of winter color.
Fall-flowering cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium) are equally appealing and make wonderful accents beneath trees, shooting fireworks of color through the carpets of fallen leaves. Like their winter cousins they are also most commonly hot pink, although white forms of both plants are also available.
Spurge may not be a pretty word, but Mrs. Robb's spurge (Euphorbia robbiae) is a delightful evergreen perennial that will flourish in deep dry shade. I grow it underneath old apple trees where fussier plants perish. Dark green leaves arranged in rosettes cover the ground at a rapid rate, and stems clad in bright yellow bracts illuminate the spring garden. Warning: do not plant Mrs. Robb where the soil is rich and moist--it will take over. But where poor, dry soil needs a blanket of year-round green, this plant is the answer.
Denizens of Damp Shade
You're in luck if you have damp shade, as the choices are plentiful. Hydrangeas of all sorts (mophead, lacecap and oakleaf) will thrive, opening sumptuous, colorful flowers from summer through late fall. Try 'Heinrich Seidel' with violet flowers, 'Taube' a cobalt blue lacecap, and 'Direktor Kunhert', with blooms the color of a brilliant Montana sky. Morning sun will encourage them to bloom even more abundantly than full shade. Add some hardy fuchsias for their pink, red and white tubular flowers that appeal to the hummingbirds.
Then start layering in the perennials. Bold-leaved Rodgersias are dramatic. Rodgersia tabularis with large, bright green leaves that look like flying saucers, flaunts cream-colored flowers that look like ostrich plumes. Masterwort (Astrantia major) offers beautifully shaped leaves, and creamy white flowers; new cultivars 'Lars' and 'Primadonna' have deep red flowers. And don't forget the graceful windflowers (Anemone) that bloom above slender wiry stems from late summer into fall, especially white 'Whirlwind' and pink 'Apple Blossom.'
Variegated, Golden and Burgundy Foliage
Lungworts (Pulmonaria) are wonderful in moderately damp shade for their silvered leaves and spring flowers that may be blue, pink or white. Some new cultivars to look for are 'Barfield Pink' with pink and white striped flowers, 'Victorian Brooch,' with magenta-coral flowers, and 'Apple Frost,' with rose flowers. My current favorite is 'David Ward,' because of its dreamy leavespale, icy green and edged in cream.
The selections of fancy-leaved plants for shade have been skyrocketing. 'Plum Pudding' is a "must have," its maroon leaves shimmering with tints of pink and plum. 'Chocolate Ruffles,' with oversize rippled leaves, dark green above and burgundy below, and deep burgundy 'Purple Sails' are also hard to pass up.
Variegated and golden grasses add sparkle to shady beds. Low-growing Hakonechloa macra 'Albo Striata' is a new white-striped form of Japanese forest grass that flushes pink in the fall. Let it cascade over a rock or spill over the edge of a path. Taller and brighter 'Knightshaye's' sedge (Carex elata 'Knightshaye') makes a dazzling two-to-three foot accent in shady borders. Subtler, yet full of light, Carex morrowii 'Aureovariegata' keeps its leaves year-round and makes a lovely sentry at the corner of a bed.
Still hunting? Consider Aquilegia, Geranium, Aconitum, Astilbe, Cimicifuga, Alchemilla, Hosta, Heucherella, Polygonatum, Acanthus, Bergenia, Corydalis, Asarum, Dicentra, Lobelia, Trollius, Brunnera....There are no end of wonders to grow in the shade.