Three Shade-Loving Woodland Perennials

April 5, 2011 at 8:57 am 3 comments

When I moved to my new home in September 2008 the leaves were changing and the fall color was glorious. I was so busy looking at the beautiful mature trees in my yard, including several maples that seemed to glow in shades of amber and red and orange, that I didn’t stop to think about the new challenge I had inherited–gardening in the shade.

I’ve learned just enough to be dangerous since then, and I thought I’d share some of my favorite plants so far. Keep in mind that there are lots of woodland and shade plants for all different climates, soil types, moisture levels and sunlight conditions. The plants I’ve listed here are growing in my zone 5 garden in sandy loam beneath the shade of some large maples. They get a few hours of filtered sunlight and no direct sunlight.

Dicentra spectabilis (old-fashioned Bleeding Heart)

Dicentra spectabilis (Bleeding Heart)

In my opinion, no garden is complete without bleeding hearts. The kind I’ve listed here are the old-fashioned variety–Dicentra spectabilis. This is the bleeding heart you might have seen growing in your grandmother’s garden. I remember I was always fascinated by those heart-shaped pink flowers with their dangling droplet (hence the common name “Bleeding Heart.”)

In deep shade (such as I have) dicentras will grow readily but won’t flower as well as those that get a few hours of sunlight (especially morning sunlight.) Dicentras spectabilis tends to go dormant in the heat of summer, so don’t plant it in a spot where it will leave a gaping hole in the garden come July. I’ve had good luck keeping my dicentras leafed out all season by cutting the plant back by half in June after it finishes flowering and keeping it moist. In fact, of the plants I’ve listed here, Dicentra seems to require the most moisture to thrive. It is by no means needy, but giving it a good, deep watering during dry spells will keep it looking its best.

For an extra shot of color in the garden, give the newer cultivar Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’ a try. It’s grandma’s bleeding heart plant, except with gorgeous gold to chartreuse foliage that glows in the shade and contrasts spectacularly with its deep pink flowers.

If you want a lower growing flowering dicentra for a somewhat sunnier spot, give Dicentra eximia (fern-leaf bleeding heart) a try. Try cultivars such as ‘Luxuriant,’ ‘King of Hearts’ and ‘Burning Hearts.’ I have ‘Burning Hearts’ in fairly heavy shade in my front garden where it gets just a couple hours of sunlight and although it blooms rather sparsely it has lovely, ferny foliage that stays all season.

Variegated Solomon's Seal

Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’ (Variegated Solomon’s Seal)

A couple of years ago when I was first pondering what to put in my dry shade garden someone on the Dave’s Garden forum said, “You must have variegated Solomon’s Seal!” And he was right–this plant is one I’m glad I brought into my yard and wouldn’t want to live without. Its graceful arching stems and subtle coloring brighten a shady area. The unique raindrop-shaped white flowers are a bonus.

If you know some shade gardeners you’ll probably find one willing to share some divisions of Solomon’s seal. It travels well bare-root and wrapped in wet newspaper. In the driest of dry shade, which is what I’ve got, I’ve found that it spreads very slowly, so if you’re planning on Solomon’s seal as a ground cover be sure to buy enough plants or you’ll be waiting quite a while to achieve the affect you’re after.

Pulmonaria 'Mrs. Moon'

Pulmonaria (Lungwort, Bethlehem Sage)

Spring would not be complete for me without pulmonaria. The plant I grow is Pulmonaria saccharata ‘Mrs. Moon,’ and it’s one of my all time favorites for achieving a glorious show of flowers in shade. There are quite a few different species and cultivars of this plant, and all of them have their merits. Some are lower growing and smaller. Most have spotted or silvery foliage that tends to last all season and look attractive even after the plant has finished flowering.

And flowering is what Pulmonaria does best. ‘Mrs. Moon’ is full on flower factory, producing masses of amazing little flowers that start off with a blueish tint turning to pink. The bi-colored look makes Pulmonaria flowers seem to glow, lighting up a shady spot. Different cultivars have different flower colors ranging from light blue to raspberry.

Some Pulmonaria will become large plants (if not tall ones) with a wide spread. ‘Mrs. Moon’ is one such plant. I planted young plants close together and found myself having to divide them the following season because they’d sprawled so much. Be sure to give them their recommended space. And if you do find them spreading out, dig and divide them in the fall. The bonus is that you’ll have more plants to either spread around your garden or share with a friend!

And Many More…

This is just the tip of the shade garden iceberg–there are many more great plants to fill those shady spots in your yard with beautiful colors, patterns, textures and shapes. I’ll continue to post more as the gardening season progresses, so stay tuned! (And be sure to subscribe in the right sidebar if you want to catch the latest posts as they’re published.)


Entry filed under: Gardening Tips.

6 Flowering Perennials for Hot Dry Locations Spring Has Sprung! – New Growth in the Garden

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sue  |  April 5, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    beautiful pics and well written, thanks! I have some dry shade with acidic soil under pines, that is challenging! Annuals do well but I’d like to find something that loves piney soil and comes back every year.

    • 2. petiolejunction  |  April 6, 2011 at 12:53 pm

      Hostas love those conditions, Sue. Some people find them boring, but I’m a certified hosta junkie. If you’re one of those people who think they’re just green or green and white check out some of the flashier cultivars like ‘Liberty’ and ‘Cathedral Windows.’

      I have an article that’s all about pimping hostas if you’re not yet sold. đŸ˜‰

  • 3. Inger Wilkerson  |  May 10, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    Perhaps try the bleeding hearts. I have tried them in two different shade areas. One works great, but in the other I have killed them off twice and I concluded that was too wet.


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