Evergreen trees and shrubs create shady conditions. If you have a cluster of large conifers, that shade may be very deep. Broad-leaved evergreens usually allow dappled or partial sun through their branches. Large plants can also draw a substantial amount of moisture from the soil. While some plants are considered shade plants, they may not be drought-tolerant. When choosing plants to place under evergreens, evaluate both light and moisture levels.
Sweet box (Sarcococca) is a smaller shrub for dry shade. It has thick, glossy leaves, black or red berries and tiny white flowers. Though small, these flowers exude a sweet perfume during the month of February.
An underused shrub for shade is mountain laurel (Kalmia). This 3- to 5-foot shrub needs rich acidic soil and summer water. The blooms of mountain laurel look like little cup-shaped kaleidoscopes and are routinely white, pink and red.
Rhododendron and azalea are great choices for moist shade. Keep in mind that they need at least dappled sun to bloom well. The best place for them is at the edge of evergreen trees.
Some other good choices are Japanese aucuba, which comes in an exotic green variety or several gold-speckled varieties. Dwarf skimmia is a small broad-leaf evergreen shrub. Skimmia produces white flower clusters and bright red berries. It will only produce berries if a male and female plant are placed close together.
Hellebores are the best winter-blooming perennials for dry shade. They hold their cup-shaped blooms from late winter until spring. The shiny evergreen foliage looks good throughout the summer.
Hosta is one of the best foliage plants for dry shade. There are tiny ground-cover hostas and larger 3-foot hostas. Many have striped leaves in shades of green and blue with yellow and white variegation. Hostas have white or purple flowers that bloom during the summer.
Another versatile group of perennials are the coral bells (Heuchera). These perennial plants come in a large variety of foliage colors. The most popular are the red- to purple-leaved varieties. Coral bells can be found with peach, chartreuse and nearly black foliage. The flower spikes are either white or red. Other good perennials to try are bergenia, primrose, trillium, violet and bleeding heart.
Ground Covers for Shade
Some ground-covers do well under evergreens. Salal (Galtheria shallon) is one of the best evergreen ground-covers. It develops white urn-shaped blooms in spring followed by black edible berries. The berries are mealy, so they are more popular with wildlife than humans. Bishops hat (Epimedium) has small mottled heart-shaped leaves held on wiry stems. Depending on the variety they will have white, red, pink or yellow hat-like flowers. Wild ginger (Asarum) has thick, glossy, heart-shaped leaves and unusual burgundy flowers in spring.
Ferns are a lush addition under evergreens. Some require more moisture than others, so choose them according to your soil conditions. Ferns in the Polystichum genus do very well in dry shade. These include Western sword fern, Korean rock fern, soft shield fern, Alaskan fern and Japanese tassle fern.