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High Desert Shade Plants

columbine image by jscott from

Shade is a scarce commodity in the sun-drenched high desert. Yet cool, inviting shade is a must-have for gardens. The challenge is to find shade-loving plants that can handle the rigors of high desert life. Fortunately, there are many native plants that are adapted to life in the shade. Some plants are dependably hardy in high desert shade as well.


red currants on currant bush image by Maria Brzostowska from

Currants (Ribes spp.) are handsome shrubs that grow 6 to 8 feet high, and are native to the high deserts of the Western United States. Several species of currants are commonly found in the filtered shade of forest understories. All currants are cold hardy and drought tolerant. The golden currant (R. aureum) produces deep green leaves and masses of gold-colored fruit. The clove currant (R. odoratum) bears fragrant yellow flowers and bright red fruit. Three-leaf sumac (Rhus trilobata) is an attractive deciduous shrub, native to high deserts, which grows from 3 to 10 feet high. It produces tart, red berries and dark green foliage, which turns orange to bright red in fall. A related dwarf sumac cultivar, 'Gro-low' sumac (R. aromatica) has a dense compact form, and grows to a height of 2 feet. Both sumacs are cold hardy, drought tolerant and do well in partial to full shade.


Periwinkle image by pognyc from

Columbines (Aquilegia spp.) are showy perennials, native to shady washes and stream banks. These spring blooming beauties need moderate moisture and partial to full shade.The Rocky Mountain columbine (A. caerulea) is a large-flowered species, which thrives in full shade in sheltered locations. Day lillys (Hemerocallis spp) are dependably hardy in high desert gardens, withstanding drought, cold and winds. They do best in medium to full shade. The large periwinkle (Vinca major) is an indispensable high desert ground cover, which will even tolerate dry shade. This hardy evergreen spreads rapidly by vine like shoots, and produces lavender flowers most of the summer. It grows from 6 inches to 1 foot high and will survive temperatures down to -10 degrees Fahrenheit.


Alyssum (Alyssum montanum) is a low growing groundcover, to about 6 inches high, which features small golden flowers in summer. Alyssum works very well in rock gardens, or a spot where it can cascade over walls. It will grow in partial to full shade, and does well in high desert conditions. Hardy blue plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) provides three season interest in high desert gardens. This low, spreading plant, which grows to 6 inches high, produces dark green, glossy foliage, which turns bright red in fall. In summer it is covered with deep blue flowers. Dwarf blue plumbago is an ideal groundcover for partial to full shade.

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