Evergreen Shrubs for Shade
Different plants tolerate shade to varying degrees so you want to avoid planting sun loving plants in sheltered cold spots as they will not thrive, can become stretched, elongated and limp and even die as they struggle to find light.
Those that tolerate shade are often from woodland environments so often require moist soil especially in summer where shallow ground can dry out leaving shallow roots to struggle to find enough water.
Shady garden areas can also be dry as they are close to walls or under the canopy of larger deeper rooted shrubs and trees.
Shade Shrubs for UK Gardens
Fortunately there are shrubs that are suited to the British climate and can provide year round evergreen colour and interest whether you are looking for plants for shaded pots and containers, climbers for north facing walls, under trees or larger shrubs, for deep shade or partial shade.
So here is a list of great full shade tolerant shrubby plants that will provide year round greenery even in the darkest low light conditions in your garden. These plants can also tolerate full sun so don't worry if you plant them in a position where they receive direct sunlight.
First on the list will surprise many as you see it growing as a hedge and not growing in the shade at all. However the Common Box B. sempervirens tolerates shade very well, I grow it under other plants as it does so well in deep shade without it causing any problems.
In spring the new bright green leaves contrast with the darker green mature leaves. You can see in the picture the box plant is in part shade right next to the flowering Crinodendron hookerianum.
It is quite a slow growing shrub and can take 50 or so years to reach full size at around 8 metres, however growing it in a pot or under other plants will greatly reduce its rate of growth and overall size. This means it can be grown under the canopy of other plants or close to other plants.
Common box growing in deep shade with other plants for shade in my UK garden including Aucuba and Mahonia. The picture above was taken in late December in England, the plants have been established a good few years but grow slowly due to the shade provided by the taller surrounding plants and general close planting.
Spotted laurel or Japanese laurel are a group of mostly green and yellow leaved shrubs that grow well in shade. In fact the leaves can get burned in strong direct sunlight. They can take winter temperatures as low as -15°C (RHS H5) so are well suited to most of the UK.
The bright banana yellow variegation of the leaves will brighten up the shadiest of spots in your garden. They really are great plants for shade and I have written Aucuba extensively highlighting many different Aucuba varieties many you will have never heard of before. They really are great plants to grow in your garden.
Aucuba japonica 'February Star'
One of the best looking and great for creating a bit of colour in deep shade is A. japonica 'February Star'. This variety is available in the UK and is well worth choosing over some of the more common varieties.
The longer narrow leaves have some great colour variation and are great for adding a tropical or jungle look to your garden. It's a very hardy plant and can take temperatures down to -15°C (RHS H5), the picture above was taken late December in the UK.
Aucuba japonica 'Salicifolia'
There are plain green leaved Aucuba varieties including Aucuba japonica 'Salicifolia' which is the non-variegated version of February Star if you prefer something a little more understated. Equally as hardy and works well in shade. I have grown this in deep shade where it didn't get much light at all and and looked great. These are ideal plants for filling sunless spots under other plants or in the shade of walls.
Aucuba japonica 'Picturata'
The wider leaved 'Picturata' has yellow variegation that is similar to February Star but with larger central splashes of yellow. A shade loving shrub that will also brighten up a shady area of your garden.
Shady areas also tend to be drier which is not a problem for Aucuba. They can handle well drained soil and do not seem to suffer particularly in long dry summers.
Aucuba japonica Sulphurea
The last Aucuba recommendation is Sulphurea, another variegated yellow leaf variety with the yellow colouration around the edge of the leaf with lighter and darker green colouration towards the centre.
Another bright leaved plant for a shady location and again very winter hardy. Sulphurea also has more prominent serrations around the edge of the leaf giving it more of a distinctive shape.
Sweet Box (Sarcococca) loves partial shade and tolerates full shade. This is an evergreen shade shrub that you should be growing because of the fantastic winter scent this group of plants produces over the winter period.
Although the least hardy tolerating temperatures down to -5°C, Sweet Box S. wallichii is a great early winter flowering Box. These make great plants for shade under trees and I grow wallichii in sheltered shaded locations either close to fences or walls or under other taller plants.
So far I haven't lost a plant due to the cold and I'd only recommend this variant for those in the milder parts of the UK. There are much hardier Sarcococca varieties available that tolerate much lower temperatures.
The most commonly available Sweet Box is S. confusa that flowers between December and March. It is hardy over the whole of the UK taking temperatures down to -15°C. Like all Sweet Box this shrub for shade is evergreen and is grown for its sweet winter fragrance so is best grown in a location where people are likely to walk passed.
Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis
If you are looking for a lower growing Sweet Box then S. hookeriana var. humilis grows to just 60cm height. As you can see pictures the emerging flowers are tinged a purple reddy pink in late December. The foliage is also longer and narrower and not as deep a green as S. confusa but seems to vary to a light green towards the outer edge of the leaf.
Plants for Shade Pots
Growing plants in pots in shade means they are less likely to dry out but it is important that shrubs like Sweet Box are kept moist as they tend to suffer very quickly to drought. /having the plant in a pot does mean that you can position it more prominently when it flowers in the winter to get maximum benefit from the scent.
Another shade loving group of shrubs are Mahonia, famed for the bright yellow flowers they produce over winter. They are very tolerant of shade and are ideal for adding some winter colour to North facing shady area.
A very unique and beautiful form of Mahonia is M. oiwakensis subsp. oiwakensis which is the Taiwanese form rather than the Chinese M. oiwakensis subsp. lomariifolia. It is distinctive due to its longer leaves and longer narrower leaflets.
The flowers are not as impressive as the likes of Mahonia x media and other variants specifically bred for the bright winter flowers. However oiwakensis has handsome foliage that produces new foliage in a deep red colour really standing out in spring and autumn.
Mahonia oiwakensis is not as hardy as the other Mahonias being rated at H4 down to -10°C and in exceptionally cold winds has suffered some leaflet damage. However it should be fine over most of the UK. If you are worried most other Mahonias are hardier.
Not to be confused with 'Soft Caress' this is M. eurybracteata one of its parents sharing many of the characteristics including the narrow less spiney leaflets.
It has the appearance of something more tropical but is winter hardy here in the UK, pictured here with the foliage covered in frost. It is also another great shrub for shade with the one pictured growing in a part shaded north facing location. The winter flowers may not be as spectacular but it is the handsome foliage this plant is grown for.
Mahonia x media
The traditional Mahonia found in most garden centres are the Mahonia x media hybrids, typically the apt named 'Winter Sun' and 'Charity'. Both of which are grown for the prolifically bright winter flowers. Winter Sun is more suited for full shade compared to Charity but both will do well on a northern aspect.
As you can see from the pictures taken at the end of the year the flowers make a great winter display and brighten up any shaded spot in your garden. These are tall shrubs and can reach around 4 metres in height although they will need to be established many years to reach this height.
The large leaved Fatsia is a large leaved shrub ideal for shade and will add a tropical accent to your garden. Fatsia japonica has some of the largest evergreen leaves of any garden plant and so is quite distinctive.
These shade loving shrubby plants have few upright stems and a head of large green leaves. Fatsia is winter hardy down to -15°C and so can be grown over most of the UK. There are a number of Fatsia varieties including the exotic close relative Fatsia polycarpa Green Fingers which prefers partial rather than full shade and is more tender so really only safe in the southern parts of the UK.