Ohio Landscape Association

Plant Recommendations for Special Conditions

Made In The Shade...

Shade gardening can be interesting and fun. Some plants prefer lightly shaded sites; others tolerate medium shade, while some can withstand conditions of deep shade. Exciting plants that enliven these various types of shady spots will be featured below, including small trees, shrubs, and perennials.

People often ask “what plants will thrive in the shade by my back door?” The question may be simple, but the answer can be complicated. Defining different types of shade and what plants do better in which type of shade is challenging. The answer lies within determining what plants can handle both the type of shade and the area’s soil conditions.

Shade gardening is different than gardening in the sun. You need to have richer soil so that the plants have all the nutrients they need. When creating a shade garden bed, think of a shady forest floor. For thousands of years, leaves have been dropping from overhead creating a deep soil, rich in composted organic matter. That is the type of soil you need to mimic in your garden. To achieve that, add organic compost to your existing soil at planting time.

Plants grown in the shade usually require less water than their sun-loving relatives. Many shade-loving plants are shallow rooted. That is, they send feeder roots into a thick mat of leaf litter near the surface of the soil to catch the available nutrients and moisture before the deeper rooted canopy plants can suck them up. In your shade garden bed, use a fast draining soil rich in organic matter to prevent root rot.

Types of shade vary greatly (e.g. the difference between areas receiving refreshing early morning sun or blistering afternoon sun.) Shaded soil conditions also vary greatly depending upon organic health, moisture content, and amount of root competition. Plants’ shade preferences can vary between tolerating very dry shade to needing very wet shade.

Thus, it is hard to scale different types of shade. If we just look at the differences based on amount of average sunlight received, we can divide levels of shade into three categories:

  • Light Shade—A few hours of direct sun
  • Medium Shade—Little direct sunlight – Reflected sunlight comprises bulk of available light
  • Deep Shade—No direct sunlight - In very deep shade, it is often beneficial to include hardscaping, structures, water features, containers, and or sculpture for enhancement.

This list divides plants into three areas based only upon their tolerance of the three types of shade listed above. Generally, plants growing within the roots of over story trees always need supplemental moisture during dry periods. But if some of the garden’s plants can tolerate somewhat dry conditions or need even more moisture, it shall be noted in the following plant descriptions.

Generally, plants with white or crème variegation can better tolerate shade; whereas, plants with pigmented foliage, gold or purple, perform better in the sun. Some of the latter plants can be included in the light shade areas with the intention of toning down some of the brightness of the foliage, but this is a subjective preference.

To better understand the process of matching appropriate plants to the conditions of your shady back door, it may also be helpful to:

  • Chart the pattern of sunlight in your garden during the day and even through the seasons;
  • Observe nature, noting the difference of undergrowth in dense woods vs. light woodland vs. the edge of a glade.
  • Procure professional assistance from member companies of the Ohio Landscape Association!

Suggested shade tolerance is indicated by (L) Light, (M) Medium, and (D) Deep


Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum Seiryu’ (Upright Lace Leaf Japanese Maple): Best upright growing form of lace leaf maple; spectacular fall color – 10 to 12’ – (M)

Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum Viridis’ (Green Lace Leaf Japanese Maple): Excellent small accent plant that makes a graceful statement; Superb orange fall color – 3 to 10’ – (M)

Chionanthus retusus (Chinese Fringe Tree)
Amelanchier grandiflora ‘Princess Diana’ (Princess Diana Serviceberry): High performing small tree that shows white flowers in early spring, berries for the birds in June, and brilliant fall color – 20 to 25’ – (L)

Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Glauca’ (Blue Nootka False Cypress): Blue-green pendulous branchlets make this narrowly growing evergreen a fine specimen – 20 to 25’ – (L)

Chionanthus retusus (Chinese Fringe Tree): Highly ornamental under story tree with shiny dark green leaves and white lightly fragrant flowers in May; Exfoliating bark – 15 to -20’ – (L)

Cornus drummondii (Giant Gray Dogwood): White flower clusters in late spring and long lasting clusters of cream-colored berries in the fall; Will tolerate some dryness – 15 to 20’ – (L)

Cornus mas ‘Golden Glory’ (Cornelian Cherry): Small tree whose chartreuse yellow flowers herald spring; Cherry red fall fruit – 20’ – (L)

Hamamelis intermedia (Witch Hazel): Unique multi-stemmed trees offering hope of spring’s return by flowering during the warm spells of late winter and tolerating much shade – 10 to 20’ – (D)

Viburnum plicatum tomentosum (Doublefile Viburnum): Normally a shrub but can be trained into a small specimen tree with strongly horizontal branches that spread a nice show of white spring flowers – 12’ – (M)


Acanthopanox sieboldiana ‘Variegata’ (Variegated Five-leaf Aralia): A tough shrub capable of lighting up a dry, shady area with creamy mottled foliage – 8 to 10’ – (D)

Chamaecyparis obtussa ‘Nana’ (Dwarf Hinoki False Cypress): Wonderful compact upright evergreen shrub whose foliage displays in bright green whorls – 3 to 6’ – (L)

Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ (Silverblotch Dogwood): A shade brightening shrub with red stems holding leaves that are strongly edged in white – can spread by suckering – 6 to 8’ – (M)

Euonymus fortunei ‘Canadian Gold’ (Canadian Gold Euonymus): Just a little afternoon shade can soften the brightness of this small standard form that has blazing green and gold variegated foliage – 7’ – (L)

Forsythia intermedia (Forsythia): The bright yellow blooms of this familiar shrub will still show through in shaded areas of the yard; Also offered in an interesting grafted tree form – 8 to 10’ – (L)

Fothergilla gardenii (Dwarf Fothergilla)

Fothergilla gardenii (Dwarf Fothergilla): A compact shrub that can thrive in shade and still display slightly scented white spring flowers, good bluish green leaves, and amazing fall colors – 3 to 5’ – (M)

Hydrangea arborescens grandiflora (Garden Hydrangea): Having smaller flowers than its famous cultivar, ‘Annabelle’, this older form’s flowers are less prone to droop to the ground in deeper shade – 4 to 6’ – (D)

Kerria japonica ‘Pictum’ (Pictum Kerria): Dry shade tolerant shrub showing yellow spring flowers, white margined leaves, and bright green stems that can show into the winter – 3 to 5’ (M)

Leucothoe fontanesiana (Leucothoe): Evergreen foliage shines green in summer, turns mahogany for winter – prefers moist but well drained shady spot – 3 to 4’ – (D)

Microbiota decussata (Siberian Cypress): A low growing evergreen with arborvitae-like foliage that grows fine in well drained, shady locations – 1’ – (D)

Pieris japonica ‘Mountain Fire’ (Japanese Andromeda): The new foliage is fiery red against the lustrous evergreen mature leaves; Clusters of creamy white flowers in spring – 5 to 6’ – (M)

Rhododendron ‘Bikini Island’ (Bikini Island Rhododendron): A newer introduction of the late David Leach that is said to be the finest red for cold climates; Extraordinary scarlet red flowers in early June – 6’ – (M)

Rhododendron ‘Casanova’ (Casanova Rhododendron): Another new Leach rhododendron; Its pale pink flowers change to light yellow for a striking contrast new to hardy rhododendrons – 6’ – (M)

Rhododendron ‘Red River’ (Red River Rhododendron): A very late blooming large plant with red flowers that is suitable for woodland screening: Also an introduction of David Leach – 11’ – (L)

Rhodotypos scandans (Black Jetbead): This very tough shrub will grow where others fear to bed; Can take dryness; White flowers in summer; Black berries last into winter – 3 to 6’ – (D)

Sambucus racemosa ‘Sutherland’ (Sutherland Golden Elderberry): An excellent new introduction; The finely cut golden yellow leaflets of this shrub are so brilliant, that a tiny bit of shade nicely tones it down – 8’ – (L)

Stephenandra incisa ‘Crispa’ (Cutleaf Stephenandra): A low spreading shrub with finely textured bright green leaves; Excellent for shade – 2 to 3’ – (M)

Thuja occidentalis ‘Emerald’ (Emerald Arborvitae): Though best when planted in full sun, arborvitaes can tolerate a little bit of shade. This is an excellent narrow cultivar – 14’ – (L)

Tsuga canadensis ‘Sargentii’ (Sargent’s Weeping Hemlock): The spreading and strongly weeping habit of this evergreen tree make it a wonderful specimen for the shade; Usually slow growing and used as a shrub – (D)


Aegopodium podagraria ‘Variegata’ (Variegated Bishop’s Weed): Aggressive groundcover that can brighten up a dry shady spot, but don’t even think of not containing it! – (D)

Ajuga ‘Bronze Beauty’ (Bronze Beauty Ajuga): Very dark purplish-bronze foliage showing blue flowers in May – (D)

Alchemilla mollis (Lady’s Mantle): Beautiful leaves hold drops of water like crystal pearls; The chartreuse yellow late spring flowers are a bonus – (M)

Asarum canadense (Canadian Wild Ginger): An underused shade-loving native groundcover – (D)

Asarum europeum (Shiny Leaf Ginger): Excellent shade groundcover with shiny evergreen leaves: Needs moisture and good drainage – (D)

Astilbe – Feathery flower plumes rise in early summer over ferny foliage. Here are just two varieties. There are many more types available. Needs moisture – (M)

‘Red Sentinel’: Sports the brightest red flowers of the genus in June

‘White Gloria’: Distinctive, blocky plumes of white in late June

Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’ (Japanese Painted Fern): Perhaps the best hardy variegated fern; Shows wonderfully in the shade with its touches of silver and red – (D)

Brunnera macrophylla ‘Variegata’ (Variegated Bugloss): Boldly variegated heart shaped leaves stand out; Has clear blue forget-me-not flowers in spring – (M)

Calamagrostis brachytricha (Foxtail Grass): One of the few flowering grasses that is happy in the shade; tawny pink inflorescence in late summer – (L)

Calamagrostis arundinacea ‘Overdam’ (Variegated Feather Reed Grass): A choice variegated grass that will accept some shade; Golden inflorescence appear in summer – (L)

Carex elata ‘Bowles Golden’ (Bowles Golden Sedge): Needs shade protection and moisture, but the bright gold upright foliage can blaze like a beacon, especially when hit by a beam of sunlight – (M)

Carex elata ‘Kaga Nishiki’ (Gold Fountains Sedge): Thin green foliage margined with gold – quite shade tolerant – (M)

Chasmanthium latifolium (Northern Sea Oats): One of the best grasses for shade -looks a bit similar to bamboo; Oat-like seed heads dance in the winter winds – (M)

Epimedium youngianum ‘Niveum’ (Barrenwort): Dainty star-like flowers show in spring above heart-shaped ground covering leaves; prefers rich soil but tolerates dryness – (D)

Galium odoratum (Sweet Woodruff): Fragrant small white flowers in May ride above the bright green fine textured foliage; tolerates some dryness – (M)

Hakonechloa maculata ‘Aureola’ (Golden Hakonechloa): A stunning grass for shade with gracefully arching golden variegated foliage; favors rich soil, but good drainage is essential – (M)

Hedera helix ‘Buttercup’ (Buttercup Ivy): A light gold-green selection of ivy that withstands some dryness – (D)

Heucheras (Coralbells): Bell-shaped flowers on wiry stems in mid summer; exhibits excellent foliage when not in bloom – (M)

‘Bressingham Beauty’: Heavy blooming mixture of pinks and reds

‘Regina’: Silvered burgundy foliage with pink blooms on 3’ stems

Hosta – Wonderful bold textured plants for the shade; Many cultivars can withstand much sunlight without scorching; The golds need sunlight for full brightness, but some shade can offer temperance; The blues need more shade protection. This is just a selection of the many varieties offered. – (D)

‘Antioch’: Glossy green foliage with wide creamy edge

‘Black Hills’: A very dark deep green; Heavily puckered with great slug resistance

‘Blue Cadet’: Good blue foliage on a compact mounded plant

‘Daybreak’: Highly rated specimen with large bright gold leaves

‘Dorset Blue’: One of the best blues with slug resistant, powdery blue green leaves

‘Francis Williams’: Heavily corrugated and puckered; Unmistakable variegation

‘Guacamole’: New chartreuse-centered, green margined introduction; Colors intensify with season; Yum!

‘Krossa Regal’: Classically vase-shaped structure of cool blue

‘Minuteman’: Some think this is an improved ‘Patriot’, with wide white margins around a dark green center

‘On Stage’: One of the most beautiful interior variegated hostas that can withstand a lot of sun

‘Paul’s Glory’: Dark green margins; Center of leaf changes from chartreuse to cream

‘Regal Splendor’: A cream edged sport of ‘Krossa Regal’

‘Robert Frost’: Frosted gray-green leaf with wide white margins feathering towards center

‘Shade Fanfare’: Light green center, creamy yellow to white edge; Good substance

‘Twilight’: Newly introduced, dark glossy green leaves graced with wide yellow margins

Houttuynia cordata ‘Chameleon’ (Chameleon Plant)
Houttuynia cordata ‘Chameleon’ (Chameleon Plant): A very aggressive ground cover that does well in shade but its brightest colors of red, pink, and yellow are brought out by some sun, contain or else! – (L)

Kirengeshoma (Yellow Waxbells): Large maple-shaped leaves on arching stems; yellow flower bells in late summer; needs moist organic soil – (D)

Liriope muscari ‘Variegata’ (Variegated Lily Turf): Yellow and green variegated foliage contrasts nicely with blue flowers in late summer – (L)

Lysmachia nummularia ‘Aurea’ (Yellow Creeping Jenny): This true creeper appreciates moist areas; some shade can reduce the glare of its yellow-gold leaves – (L)

Persicaria ‘Red Dragon’ (Red Dragon Lace Plant): Chevron patterned leaves of purplish red, silver, and green; non-running and will accept a bit of shade – (L)

Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegata’ (Variegated Solomon’s Seal): Uniquely variegated leaves are dark green with streaks of cream that appear to have been personally brushed on by Mother Nature – (D)

Polystichum setiferum ‘Proliferum’ (Soft Shield Fern): Long fronds spiral about the crown of this fern – could be marginally hardy, so place carefully – (D)

Pulmonaria (Lungwort) The foliage of lungworts hold up for the whole season and many new cultivars are appearing with wondrous spotting – flowers are a spring bonus – (M)

‘British Sterling’: Shows foliage that is both mottled with silvery white and has distinct spots; bright purplish-pink buds open to blue flowers in April

‘Cotton Cool’: This English introduction sports long blooming blue flowers over entirely silvered upright leaves

‘Sissinghurst White’: White flowers over broad silver spotted foliage

Solenostemon (Coleus): No, coleus are not perennials, but the selection of new varieties that refrain from rapidly going to flower and can tolerate sun or shade warrant the inclusion of this annual in many a shade garden. They definitely need moisture. This antique plant is gaining new prominence from such garden designers as Julie Nulph of Kent. Some of the included varieties are ‘Alabama Sunset’, ‘Morning Mist’, ‘Red Ruffles’, ‘Mama Mia’, ‘Religious Radish’, ‘Stained Glass’, ‘Flirtin’ Skirts’, ‘Metzger’s Torch’, ‘Lifelime’, ‘El Brighto’, ‘Camillia’, ‘Glennis’, ‘Solar Flare’, ‘Japanese Giant’, ‘Bronze Pagoda’, ‘Lemon and Lime’, ‘Collin's Gold’, ‘Lime Frill’, and ‘Amazon’. – (D)

Tiarella ‘Herronswood Mist’ (Herronswood Mist Foam Flower): Layers of pink, cream and green settle like a mist over the broad leaves of this new tiarella from Dan Hinkley – (M)

Valeriana officinalis (Garden Heliotrope): Some may object to the spreading tendency of this old perennial herb, but the loose clusters of fragrant white flowers riding the wind above the ferny foliage can magnetize one’s nose – (L)

Article written by Bill Healy of William Healy Design, Akron, Ohio.

More Plants That Can Tolerate Shade

Ajuga (light to partial shade)
Andromeda (partial shade)
Azaleas (partial shade)
Bayberry, Northern (partial shade)
Beech, Tri-color (light shade)
Blueberry, Highbush
Bottlebrush Buckeye (partial shade)
Boxwoods (light shade)
Burning Bushes (light shade)
Cherry, Pawnee Buttes (partial shade)
Chokeberries (partial shade)
Daphne, Carol Mackie (light shade)
Dogwoods (partial shade)
Enkianthus (filtered sunlight)
Euonymus, Evergreen (partial shade)
Falsespirea, (light shade)
Ferns (partial shade)
Fir, Balsam (light shade)
Fir, Dwarf Balsam (light shade)
Fringetree, White (light shade)
Hazelnut, American (light shade)
Hazelnut, Harry Lauder’s Walkingstick (partial shade)
Heather (light shade)
Hollies (partial shade)
Honeysuckles (partial shade)
Hophornbeam (light shade)
Hornbeam, American (partial shade)
Hydrangeas (partial shade)
Inkberry (light shade)
Japanese Maple (filtered light)
Kiwi (partial shade)
Labrador Tea (partial shade)
Laburnum, Scotch (light shade)
Lambs Ear, Silver Carpet (partial shade)
Laurels (partial shade)
Magnolias (light shade)
Maples (light shade)
Mockorange (light shade)
Mulberry (light shade)
Ninebark (partial shade)
Quince (partial shade)
Redbud (light shade)
Stephanandra, Crispa (light shade)
Sumac, Gro-Low (partial shade)
Sweetshrub, Common
Twinspur, Coral Canyon (light shade)
Tupelo, Black (light shade)
Variegated Fiveleaf Aralia
Viburnums (partial shade)
Virginia Creeper
Winterberry, (light shade)
Wintergreen (partial shade)
Witchhazel, Common

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