Plants For Shade

Do you have a shady spot in your garden where you are having difficulty finding plants that will grow there?

Shade can be a problem but there are shade tolerant plants that will grow and even thrive in shade. The real problem with shade is that it also tends to mean the soil is also dry, particularly if it hasn't rained significantly for many weeks.

Shade loving plants

A common misconception is that there are a group of plants that love shade. The truth is that some plants can tolerate shady areas better than others. All plants need sunlight to photosynthesise in order to grow strong and healthy. I like to to think of plants for shaded areas as plants that like shade rather than love it, or at least tolerate it.

Plants for dry shade

Some ferns will grow well in shade but if you have free draining soil combined with a long dry spell the ferns suffer, fronds become eviscerated and die back. If the rain is not significant water may not penetrate the soils surface to reach the roots. Ferns tend to have a relatively shallow root system, especially compared to shrubs or trees that can reach further down into the ground to reach water.

List of recommended plants for shade

Below are my recommended plants for shade and dry shade. All the evergreen plants for shade that I have suggested are UK winter hardy. This means that they will remain green all year round and should survive a typical winter in Britain. (In a hurry? Each link goes to a page where you can buy shade plants) :

Sarcococca (Sweet Box)
Polystichum setiferum (Soft Shield Fern)
Asplenium scolopendrium (Hart's Tongue Fern)
Pachysandra terminalis (Japanese Spurge)
Bergenia (Elephant's ears)
Euphorbia amygdaloides
Hedera helix (Ivy)
Hedera colchica (ivy)

How shaded is the area?

shaded north facing wall
Fatsia, Holly fern and bergenia growing on north side of wall (28th August)

There are various degrees of shade. You may have a north facing aspect that doesn't get any direct sunlight. There may be areas of your garden where you want to underplant below some heavy foliage.

The difference between what people perceive to be shady can make a significant difference to how the plant performs. In one spot a plant may thrive whilst in another it may not grow noticeably or at all or become straggly if the plants really prefers some direct sunlight.

Best plants for shade

So with all that in mind here are a few suggestions for plants for shade that I have found do quite well. I've included pictures of the actual plants so you can get an idea of how well they may suit your situation. Bear in mind though that my soil is clay so gets very dry in summer to the point you need an axe to dig the soil.

All of the plants suggested are evergreen and I have grown these plants myself in varying levels of shade. These are great shade plants that will provide you with year round interest.

If you need something larger to grow take a look at our ideal shrubs for the shade that look good all year round and don't mind a lack of direct sun or north facing position.

Best Ferns for Shade

polystichum setiferum soft shield fern for shade
polystichum setiferum, the soft sheild fern does well in full shade (28th August)

Polystichum setiferum (Soft Shield Fern) is a shade loving plant as are many in this group including Polystichum setiferum 'Plumo-Densum'. I have found they also tolerate dry quite well if given a non exposed position such as a shady spot in your garden.

The Soft Shield Fern has textured or lacy fronds which give it more of a dimensional appearance compared to most ferns that tend to have relatively flat fronds in appearance. I guess I'm saying they are more interesting and for want of a better word, pretty. It's also very tough easily withstanding the coldest of UK winters and still remaining green.

shade loving asplenium scolopendrium harts tongue fern
the shade loving harts tongue fern (asplenium scolopendrium) (28th August)

Asplenium scolopendrium is the ultimate fern for dry shade. The Hart's Tongue Fern remains green all year round and survives the harshest that winter can throw at it. Plus it's native to the UK.

asplenium scolopendrium harts tongue fern growing on north facing wall
Asplenium scolopendrium growing from a north facing wall (26th June)

A. scolopendrium will do great against a North facing wall such as one in a rain shadow where it doesn't get much rainfall. Or under thick foliage where it also tends to be dry. Incidentally this fern can be seen growing around Britain on stone facades or cliffs with a North, East or West aspect where it is out of direct sun.

Fragrant shade plants

sarcococca confusa sweet box
sarcococca confusa, sweet box (26th August)

Sarcococca or Sweet Box doesn't get much of a mention as a plant to grow in shady conditions, which is a shame as it is a great little evergreen shrub. Moreover it produces some of the most fragrant flowers during winter there isn't much of interest in most people's gardens.

Sweet Box will happily tolerate full shade and will do quite well in pots. Why not grow a pair of Sarcococca in pots either side of your North facing front door? Your visitors will comment on the scent when it flowers in Winter.

I grow this handsome plant in various shady spots around the garden and it seems to do well. Here are some I can recommend:

‣ Sarcococca Confusa (Sweet Box)
‣ Sarcococca Wallichi (Christmas Box) Large leaved and fully hardy (source: Crug Farm)
‣ Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna (Sweet Box)
‣ Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis (Dwarf Sweet Box)

sarcococca hookeriana var humilis-dwarf sweet box
sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis, dwarf sweet box (26th August)

For me Sweet Box does well in shade, admittedly it won't grow as fast or as large compared to growing in brighter conditions but it does well and doesn't become limp and leggy like a sun loving plant would do growing in shade.

sarcococca wallichi christmas box deep shade
Sarcococca wallichi (christmas box) (6th September)

According to Crug Farm the rarer Wallichi (Christmas Box) that has larger foliage is as winter hardy as other Sarcococca grown more commonly. Mine is yet to face a harsh winter but fingers crossed it will do fine. I do however seem to have a problem with slugs and snails eating the leaves whilst they leave the hookeriana alone even though they are planted next to eat other.


bergenia in the shade
bergenia growing in the shade (22nd August)

The large leaved clump forming Bergenia or more commonly 'Elephant's ears' grows in full shade. Depending on the variety they produce flowers on short stems in whites through to pinks and purples adding a bit of colour to a shady spot.

bergenia cordifolia heart leaf bergenia
bergenia cordifolia, heart leaf bergenia (6th September)

I don't know why more people do not grow this plant as it has done well in both very shaded areas and dry clay soil. It is great for underplanting, on a North facing aspect or grown so the leaves tumble over the edge of a raised area to soften the edge of any hard landscaped areas you may have.

bergenia under cordyline and  trachycarpus
cordyline and trachycarpus underplanted with bergenia (6th September)

In winter many Bergenia acquire a red tinge to the leaves, some varieties do so more than others. As you can see from the pictures the edges of these large leathery leaves can remain tinged with bright red even in the summer.

It's a useful shade plant for covering dry ground. I have several plants in a raised border where Trachycarpus palms and Cordyline are growing that can get very dry throughout summer. The 'Elephant's ears' seem to do well there with only filtered morning light.

Euphorbia amygdaloides

euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae mrs robb's bonnet
euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae 'mrs robb's bonnet' (18th August)

Not all Euphorbias do well in shade but Euphorbia amygdaloides 'Purpurea' the 'Wood Spurge' and Euphorbia amygdaloides var. Robbiae commonly 'Mrs Robb's bonnet' do very well in shade, Robbiae more so.

euphorbia amygdaloides purpurea wood spurge
euphorbia amygdaloides purpurea 'wood spurge' (18th August)

The suckering 'Mrs Robb's bonnet' will out compete weeds but will slowly creep about the same speed as clumping bamboo. Again I find this useful for spots where other plants will not grow. This is another plant that tolerates dry very well which often accompanies many shaded areas of gardens.

euphorbia amygdaloides purpurea wood spurge shade
euphorbia amygdaloides purpurea 'wood spurge' in shade (18th August)

Purpurea does not sucker like Robbiae so can be grown in spots where space is limited. New growth shows as a purple hue which adds some colour to shady areas especially in winter. I would add that I find that Robbiae is the more aggressive and tougher of the two plants.

euphorbia amygdaloides purpurea wood spurge close up
euphorbia amygdaloides purpurea 'wood spurge' close up of the purple tinge (18th August)

Full shade

rubus tricolor, bramble, ivy in shade

As long as you keep them under control then the Chinese evergreen bramble Rubus tricolor along with interesting ivy varieties are great for full shade situations. I grow them so that they scramble into each other to create a diverse patchwork for groundcover.

Rubus does produce white flowers and red to orange edible fruits. Its foliage is dark green and the stems are covered in small red hairs. Unlike bramble these do not have any thorns and stay green all year round.

Ivy is often just thought of as a climber but due to its tolerance of shade it makes a great groundcover plant that can be trimmed to keep clear of paths. If you mix in various cultivars with differing leaf colours and shapes it adds interest to areas under shrubs rather than leaving the ground bare.

Colour for a shade garden

heuchera and euphorbia in shade

In dappled shade or partial shade there are various shrubs and small plants that you can use to add colour and texture all year round rather than choosing deciduous plants that may only produce interest from early spring to late summer.

Plants such as Heuchera, Euphorbia and ferns can add interest to areas between larger shrubs and trees. Heuchera or Coral Bells can be found in a myriad of colours and variegation and are often quite showy

Ferns often prefer shade and ground that doesn't dry out for long periods in summer. I have found that many ferns thrive on north facing aspects and varieties of evergreen ferns such as Dryopteris erythrosora and the Autumn ferns will brighten up darker parts of the garden with their reds and copper colours on the new spring growth.

ivy and carex

The grass like Carex seems to do well in a shaded position and I've found like many plants they grow larger to compensate for the lack of direct sunlight but without it becoming leggy.

As you can see from the picture Carex oshimensis Everest is growing and spreading amongst the ivy. Carex Everest is green with bright white stripes but you can get other varieties with cream or gold stripes.

Heuchera in shade

Heuchera or Coral bells will grow in shade and I've grown several sports for their bright colours to liven up shady spots. They do not however like to dry out so in summer I have found they tend to do better in full shade or partial shade compared to their counterparts in full summer sun.

Pictured are a couple of examples of leaf pattern and colour that you can find on probably the most colourfully leaved group of plants.

heuchera americana marvelous marble

You can see the green outer edge fading into a central light to dark purple centre of Heuchera americana Marvelous Marble.

heuchera marmalade

The deliciously named Heuchera Marmalade produces pinky red and orange on new leaves and the foliage gradually turns to a lime green as it matures. This particular Heuchera is growing under a Photinia and only gets partial sun later in the day but spends most of its time shaded and still seems to manage to produce a colourful display.

Climbers for shade

hedera helix' parsley crested
hedera helix 'parsley crested' (7th September)

When Ivy gets mentioned people immediately think of English Ivy (Hedera helix) that you see scrambling up trees and walls in the countryside or out of control in someone's garden.

hedera colchica paddys pride shade
hedera colchica 'paddy's pride' in full shade (7th September)

Fortunately there's a lot more to ivy with a variety of shapes and colours and mosts of these varieties do not flower and so will not attract wasps. By the way English Ivy is a great out of season pollen source for insects. Many people do not grow this cultivar due to its rampant nature.

hedera helix parsley crested north facing wall with fatsia and euphorbia
hedera helix 'parsley crested' growing on a north facing wall with fatsia and euphorbia in the foreground (7th September)

Ivy can be useful for covering a north facing wall or for groundcover. The less aggressive types of Ivy can be trailed up bare stems to add extra foliage and colour.

hedera helix pretty lemon
hedera helix 'pretty lemon' (7th September)

There are a huge number of cultivars under the name Hedera, helix and colchica having a number of hardy evergreen shade tolerant sports. Colours range from dark green to light green, yellows and creams to white usually variegated to different levels.

hedera helix green ripple
hedera helix 'green ripple' (7th September)
hedera helix sagittifolia
hedera helix 'sagittifolia' (Birdsfoot) (7th September)
hedera helix brokamp
hedera helix 'brokamp' (heart shaped leaf) (7th September)

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