Looking for the best flowers for a shade garden? I’ve asked my Master Gardener friends to give their recommendations, and here are their top plants (with fancy latin names!)
Deep shade flower beds and borders can be as lush and beautiful as the sunnier spaces in your garden. Fill them with shade-loving flowers as well as perennials with colorful foliage that returns each year.
A shade garden shouldn’t be an all-green affair. Granted, there are plenty of very nice perennials that thrive in shade and produce lush green leaves, but you can take your shade garden to the next level by digging a bit deeper when making plant selections.
Look for some of these perennials that flower in partial shade, and include them in your garden. Also add season-long interest by paying special attention to plants that feature foliage marked with silver, white, cream, or yellow.
Flowering Perennials for Shade
Among the earliest blooming, shade-loving perennials are hellebores (Helleborus spp.). These feature evergreen leaves and flowers in a range of pinks, whites, and purples. For more on hellebores see Beautify Your Shade Garden With Ground Covers. Here are some other spring-blooming shade flowers to add to your garden.
Astilbe hybrids (Astilbe spp.) feature fernlike foliage and lacy plumes of tiny flowers from late spring to early summer. Flowers come in shades of pink, magenta, white, crimson-rose, purple-pink, and red-purple. Plants range from 6 inches to 3 feet or more. Give astilbes partial shade and rich, constantly moist, well-drained soil. Afternoon shade is essential in Southern Zones. Zones 4 to 8.
Bleeding hearts (Dicentra spp.) bear showy racemes of heart-shaped flowers in shades of pink as well as white. Blooms are borne above mounds of deeply cut, fernlike leaves. Common bleeding heart (D. spectablis) ranges from 1½ to 2½ feet tall and goes dormant in early summer after flowering. Native fringed and Western bleeding hearts (D. eximia and D. formosa), both about 1½ feet tall, flower heavily in spring to early summer then continue blooming until fall if the soil remains moist. Give bleeding hearts light to full shade and moist, rich, well-drained soil. Zones 3 to 9.
Crested iris (Iris cristata) is another early blooming native. Plants feature strap-shaped leaves and spread by fleshy rhizomes: They range from 4 to 8 inches tall. Plants spread to 2 feet and can be used as ground covers. In late spring, the clumps are topped by lavender-blue or white flowers with yellow or orange crests on each fall. Give plants partial to full shade and rich, evenly moist, well-drained soil. Zones 3 to 9.
Epimediums (Epimedium spp.), also known as barrenwort, bishop’s hat, fairy wings and horny goat weed, are prized both for their handsome long-lasting foliage as well as their flowers. Blooms appear early in spring, before the leaves. Individually, the spurred flowers are small, but the clusters are attractive and showy. Flowers come in white, yellow, pink, red, purple, and orange. Many bear bicolored flowers. Epimediums range from 6 to about 16 inches tall and spread at different rates: Some are clump-forming, while others spread to form handsome drifts and can be used as ground covers. While epimediums prefer a site with partial to full shade and rich, evenly moist soil, they also survive in dry shade. Zones 4 to 8.
Primroses (Primula spp.) make a charming addition to a spring garden. Cowslip primrose (P. veris) and English primrose (P. vulgaris) are among the easiest to grow. Both have semievergreen to evergreen leaves and bear yellow flowers. Many cultivars of English primrose are available, with flowers in white, orange, magenta, purple-pink, and yellow. Plants range from 8 to 10 inches tall. Give plants partial shade—afternoon shade is best in warm climates—and rich, moist, well-drained soil. Zones 4 to 8.
Pulmonarias (Pulmonaria saccharata) feature both early flowers and handsome foliage. The blooms, borne in dainty clusters, are small but quite effective in the early spring garden. Most cultivars produce pink buds that open into blue flowers. Leaves are green marked with various amounts of silver and/or white, depending on the cultivar in question. Plants range from 8 to 14 inches. Give pulmonarias partial to full shade and rich, evenly moist soil. Zones 3 to 8.
Variegated fragrant Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum var. thunbergii ‘Variegatum’) produces arching leaves arranged in a featherlike fashion along 2½ to 3-foot stalks. The leaves are green with white striping around the edges, and the plants bear white bell-like flowers on the under side of the stalks from late spring to early summer. Give fragrant Solomon’s seal rich, moist, well-drained soil and partial to full shade. Zones 4 to 8.
Guaranteed Spring Color for Shade
For spring color in shade gardens, hardy bulbs are among the best bets. They’re guaranteed to put a smile on your face on a chilly spring morning and are also simple to add to your garden. Buy the bulbs in fall and dig holes to plant them among your perennials or along the front edge of a shrub border.
Daffodils (Narcissus spp.), snowdrops (Galanthus spp.), and winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) are all reliable bloomers on shaded sites, because they come up, bloom, and approach dormancy before trees leaf out in spring.
For more perennials that bloom in shade, read about summer shade and fall shade plants. Also, don’t forget shrubs, including rhododendrons and azaleas (Rhododendron spp.), which thrive in partial shade with rich, well-drained soil.
Finally, to make sure your shade garden is a success, don’t overlook the importance of site selection and soil preparation. Adding plenty of organic matter to soil—whether you have clay soil or sand—will work wonders for your plants.
After you plant, keep the soil covered with chopped leaves, shredded bark, or another organic mulch. As these materials break down (replenish them as they do!), soil organisms like earthworms will carry the organic matter down into the plants root zones, helping to keep your perennials thriving.
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