Many varieties of perennials bloom reliably in light shade, and some bloom in fairly dense shade. Shade-loving perennials are predominantly woodland plants that bloom very early in spring, although some varieties bloom later. Most shade-loving perennials produce flowers that are in delicate, muted colors rather than the bold and bright colors of flowers that prefer full sun.
One of the most popular ground covers, lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis), grows only 6 inches high with wide, deep green leaves. It blooms in early to mid-spring, producing tiny bell-shaped flowers along the top few inches of 6-inch stems. Its flowers are highly fragrant and used to scent perfumes and other cosmetics. Wild violets (Viola odorata) are another shade-loving ground cover that grows about 6 inches high. They are related to the cultivated annual violas and pansies grown in cool weather. Wild violets spread by underground runners, and they are prolific re-seeders as well. Unlike their cultivated cousins (which bloom for months, weather permitting), wild violets only bloom for a short period in mid-spring. The most common flower color is a bluish purple or violet, but there are varieties available with white or pale pink flowers.
Herbaceous Flowering Perennials
An early-blooming herbaceous perennial, columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris), grows from 1- to-2-feet high in the shade garden. Columbines hybridize readily, either in the laboratory or the home garden, and as a result they are available in all colors of the rainbow, including white and black. Another small shade-loving perennial, lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis), grows just 10 inches high. The tiny yellowish-green flowers of lady's mantle cover the plant in late spring. They are held above the foliage in small clusters and make excellent filler material for bouquets. This plant has fuzzy leaves that catch the morning dew.
Exotic Foliage Colors
One shade-loving plant with unusual foliage is lamium "Purple Dragon," which grows about 4-to-8-inches high. Purple flowers cover the plants for weeks in late spring and early summer. When they fade the leaves take center stage. The leaves have silvery-white centers that quickly change to dark green at the toothed edges. Hostas are widely grown in shade gardens, primarily for their interesting foliage. A compact variety of hosta called "Blue Ivory" grows just 16 inches high. Its leaves have bluish centers with creamy or white margins. This variety of hosta has leaves that are more rounded than the spiky leaves of most hosta varieties.