8 shade-tolerant plants that prove there’s no need to be scared of the dark 

Expert garden designers share their top shade-tolerant plants to brighten your outside space (and your day).

It’s embedded into the fabric of most gardens – some parts of your patch will be bathed in glorious sunshine, while others are blanketed or dappled in shade. Though the sun’s journey across the sky each day may afford areas of partial light, what about those hushed, almost mystical darker corners and borders?

A garden design with shade-tolerant plants growing along borders and under a treeCredit: Elks-Smith Landscape & Garden Design

No shady garden design would be complete without an appropriate cast of the best shade-tolerant plants. We’ve spoken to three garden designers who have revealed what plants they use to expertly execute shadier planting projects. Get ready to rest beneath trees, run your fingers through ornamental grasses, spy year-round pops of colour and look at luscious, bountiful leaves.

Still missing the sun? We thought not…

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1. Campanula poscharskyana, trailing bellflower

For masses of purple flowers in dry shade

This popular, low-growing perennial produces an abundance of purple flowers and is ideal for the front of shady, herbaceous borders.

“A versatile and easily controllable thug of a plant is Campanula poscharskyana (also known as the trailing bellflower),” says garden designer Marlene Lento. “It features masses of purple bellflowers and will cover dry, shady ground efficiently, providing early foliage that lasts for most of the year. It perfectly alternates with the foliage of cyclamen, which appears when campanula goes dormant for the winter, and disappears as campanula reappears.”

Be careful if growing this against a building, though, as the Saga Exceptional team has found it difficult to remove once it embeds itself into any cracks in masonry. Though we usually try to get rid of weeds without chemicals, a few months left unchecked, and this campanula might have you reaching for the Roundup.

2. Astilbe, false goatsbeard

Damp-loving feathered fronds

Also known as astilbe, false goatsbeard is a hardy perennial with feathery, fern-like flowers emerging from evergreen leaves, which bloom in shades from white to red. If you have a damp area that receives dappled shade, then this plant is perfect.

Dwarf varieties are available if you’d rather grow an astilbe in a container, though this will need to be regularly watered and checked daily. This is a robust plant that retains its pretty fronds once faded throughout winter.

How to create colour and texture with shade-tolerant plants

James Scott, lead designer and managing director of The Garden Company, explains how to use shade-tolerant plants around trees and shrubs (which often create shade) to add a splash of colour, texture and planting schemes at different times of year:

  • “Don’t try to create year-round colour in a shady setting – it’s best to aim for the varied textures and patterns that can be provided by ferns and grasses.”
  • “Celebrate the seasons by allowing herbaceous plants to display their russet colours well into winter, before cutting back.”
  • “Use carpets of bulbs such as bluebells, snowdrops and wood anemone for a naturalistic splash of seasonal colour.”
  • “As autumn takes hold, it can be good to add some complementary tones (for example, winged spindle or Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’, a dark-leaved shrub that comes into its own at this time of year).”
  • “Cyclamens can be very good for adding colourful ground cover when larger trees are dormant and have lost their leaves.”

3. Helleborus, Christmas rose

Gorgeous petals for full shade

It really is possible to grow gorgeous flowers in full shade in winter. Honestly. Clump-forming, perennial flower hellebore grows cup shaped, rose-like blooms just when you need them most.

“Hellebores have attractive leaf shapes and fragrant flowers from late winter to spring,” agrees Scott. “They can thrive in shady spots.” They like soil that is moist but well-drained, such as under trees.

We love the ruffled, layered petals of Helleborus orientalis ‘Double Ellen Picotee’, which could be planted in shade created at the base of existing trees and shrubs. These flowers provide light relief in the final stretch of winter, just when you really need it. There are plenty of different cultivars and colours available that you could group together for an even more interesting display.

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4. Hydrangea paniculata, hydrangea

Sarah Raven’s favourite cultivar

Hydrangeas – woody shrubs with large clusters of flowering heads – are known for being a reliable shade-tolerant plant. You can grow hydrangeas in a pot, as well as in a raised bed, and the Saga Exceptional team has recommended them as an excellent low-maintenance garden flower.

Scott explains: “If your soil is sufficiently water-retentive, you can also add splashes of hydrangeas for late colour.”

Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ is gardener Sarah Raven’s choice of cultivar.

“This is my all-round favourite hydrangea,” she writes on sarahraven.com, “which the cleanest, brightest, acid green. Then the flowers fully flatten and turn pure ivory, before being washed in rich pink.”

It’s an excellent choice for gardeners looking for shade-tolerant plants that offer long garden value throughout the flowering season.

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Did you know?

You can use certain shade-tolerant plants in a clever way to reflect what little light you may have available in darker spots.

“Opt for a few plants with glossy or light-spotted leaves, as they reflect ambient light even in the shade,” advises Lento. “Skimmias, fatsias, hellebores and brunnera, and Asarum europaeum (plus pulmonaria or pachysandra for ground cover), fit the bill.

“Many shade-loving plants have larger leaves, such as hostas, which offset beautifully against sculptural ferns or the fine-leaved clouds of muehlenbeckia.”

5. Liriope muscari, lily turf

Late summer flowers that thrive in poor soil

Liriope muscari (or lily turf) is an evergreen perennial that is ideal for padding out a shady raised bed garden or border in full shade. Its flowering spires bloom in autumn, followed by berries, meaning your garden will continue to provide for wildlife once summer’s main harvest is over. Humans shouldn’t eat this fruit though, and it’s a plant that is toxic to pets, too.

If you’re looking for grassy textures that offer a little something extra, Lento suggests including this shade-tolerant plant for its resilience.

“It has strap-shaped leaves and purple, late-summer flowers,” she adds, “and it tolerates poor, dry and shady soil.”

6. Carex morrowii, Japanese sedge

Lifts gloomy areas

An ornamental grass garden designer Helen Elks-Smith favours in her shadier designs is Carex morrowii ‘Ice Dance’ (a type of sedge). “I use this grass in quite a few schemes,” she notes. “It is very easy-going and the delicate pale edge to the foliage often adds a little lift to gloomy areas.”

This shade-tolerant plant is a hardy, evergreen perennial that’s particularly easy to maintain (needing barely any extra attention). Simply remove tired or dead foliage in the spring – and you can cut it back by almost half in the spring and summer. Leave it be in autumn and winter, though. ‘Ice Dance’ can be planted in a small garden rockery or in a shady border. It’ll thrive in tricky spots where you’ve struggled to see positive planting results before.

There’s a difference between dry and damp shade (and you’ll be able to feel this in the soil with your hands, and sense it in the air as you do in a dark forest). Choosing the right shade-tolerant plants for a specific position often relies on understanding whether the darkness is damp or not.

7. Galanthus nivalis, snowdrop

Can withstand snowy conditions

The delicate white bell-shaped flowerheads of perennial flower snowdrops (botanical name galanthus) are a most welcome sight when waiting for spring. They look wonderful when planted in drifts and can withstand snowy and frozen conditions.

In even better news, they’re also a hardy, shade-tolerant plant, suited to the base of trees. They need a little sunlight, so beneath deciduous trees and shrubs are an ideal spot. Snowdrops aren’t too fussy when it comes to soil type – just avoid waterlogged or very damp soil and sandier patches that get scorched by the sun.

8. Deschampsia cespitosa, tufted hair grass

Fluffy foliage for damp soils in light shade

If you’d love to bring elements of a sensory garden to your outside space, then Elks-Smith recommends the soft, fluffy foliage of Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’ (also called tufted hair grass) – a mound-forming evergreen grass that can tolerate light shade and likes damp conditions.

“It’s fabulous when used en masse,” she says. “The delicate seed heads create a horizontal layer, which acts as a counterbalance – an anchor especially useful near trees and shrubs.”

We love its pale, golden tufts, which will provide an instant lift among strong, evergreen hues. When the feathery textures pick up any glints of light, they appear to almost shimmer. A mesmerising effect in a shady spot.

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Rosanna Spence

Written by Rosanna Spence she/her

Published:

Rosanna Spence has been a journalist for nearly 10 years, reporting on a huge array of topics – from microwaves to cocktails, sustainable buildings, the Caribbean islands and beyond. She’s interviewed chefs at the helm of Michelin-starred restaurants and chatted to countless CEOs about their businesses, as well as created travel guides for experienced travellers seeking life-changing adventures. Throughout her career, she has created content for Business Traveller, i-escape.com, Pub & Bar, BRITA, Dine Out and many more leading titles and brands.

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