Category Archives: Shade Gardening

plants that like shade

Fern Crazy

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A stand of hay scented fern, Dennstaetdtia punctilobula

Talk about being survivors…ferns are one of the oldest group of plants on the planet, dating back 3 million years. Despite their adaptive capabilities, they are still one of the most overlooked perennials. Alas, gardeners are easily distracted by blossoms, small or huge, subtle or bold, and forget about the steadfast display of handsome foliage.

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the lovely Maidenhair Fern, Adiantum pedatum

Consider these reasons why you should make room for more ferns . 1. They are the ultimate foliage plant. 2. Ferns are plants that don’t mind benign neglect. 3. They look gorgeous unfurling with new growth in early spring and provide a refreshing, deer resistant oasis in the shade all summer long. 4. Some ferns turn colors of bronze or gold in the fall before they are knocked down by frost while others provide a persistent green though the winter. 5. There are ferns for various soil conditions… yes, some tolerate drier soils although most appreciate some amount of moisture. Learn which ones will thrive in your soil conditions and you’ll have few problems.

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Ferns 101. Some basic fern terminology. When reading descriptions you may get confused by the botanical terms, so here are the basics:

Ferns erupt as fiddleheads or croziers from rhizomes, which is the name given to the fleshy underground stem.  Foliage either ascends from the rhizome (Dryopteris, Polystichum ) or creeps from this underground stem (Adiantum, Dennstaedtia).

The frond refers to the entire leaf structure including the stipe (the leaf stalk or petiole which rises from the rhizome)  and the blade which includes the pinna (leaflets) that are patterned along on either sides the rachis (upper stem ). Each pinna has its own rachis. Some of the pinna are very simple (undivided) and some are divided in multiple segments or pinnules.

Athyrium x 'Ghost'

Athyrium x ‘Ghost’

The most commonly cultivated ferns are in the genera Adiantum, Athyrium, Dryopteris and Polystichum. A stand of Maidenhair fern, Adiantum pedatum when provided with a moisture retentive soil is a vision to behold all summer. Its delicate green leaflets are set off by almost black stems. I am trying it in a shady container this season.

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A fancy selection of Japanese panted fErn, Athyrium niponicum pictum ‘Applecourt’

Athyrium is a huge genus with over 180 species and hybrids, including the cultivar ‘Applecourt’, pictured above.  Many are familiar with the Japanese Painted Fern, Athyrium niponicum pictum. Although it can be forgiving of drier soil, an even source of moisture  will provide a steady supply of new fronds all summer providing a more luxurious show. The selection ‘Regal Red’ has an especially striking red color contrast, ‘Pearly White’ adds a silver glow to the shade garden, and ‘Godzilla’, a new hybrid, is reported to reach epic proportions, growing to 3’ tall and up to 6’ across in the right conditions.

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This is the first year we are growing Athyrium otophorum, aka Eared Lady Fern, and I am delighted with how well it is doing. A continuous succession of lime green fronds with contrasting burgundy stipes have added a freshness to the garden, and she looks great near golden leaved plants. I would be neglectful not to mention the hybrid Athyrium ‘Ghost’ (a cross between lady fern, A. flelix-femina and painted fern A. niponicum pictum). This fern is a true garden survivor, standing 2’ tall and holding its own next to a vigorous Hosta ‘Komodo Dragon’ .

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Dixie Wood Fern, Dryopteris x australis

Dryopteris, or Wood Fern, generally enjoys a moist rich soil, but I have grown D. erythrosora (Autumn Fern) in average to dry conditions and it hasn’t disappointed. D. erythrosora ‘Brilliance’ provides a bronzy copper color with its new emerging foliage.  D. x australis aka Dixie Wood Fern can grow to an impressive 4-5’ tall but needs consistent moisture to achieve that stature. Dryopteris tokyoensis, another fern that is very easy to keep happy, produces erect fronds 2-3’ , forming a lovely vase shape.

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Japanese Tassel Fern, Polystichum polyblepharum

Many species in the genus Polystichum have leathery leaves and tend to be evergreen. P. acrostichoides, commonly called Christmas Fern sends forth 1-2’ arching forest green fronds from multiple crowns. Another unfussy fern, tolerating dryish soil although it would love to unfurl in rich moist loam is P. polyblepherum  aka Japanese Tassel Fern. It boasts lustrous dark green 1-2’ arching evergreen fronds. Korean Rock Fern, P. tsus-simense is a diminutive semi-evergreen species for rocky crevices, and it tolerates drier soil that has been amended with rich humus.

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Don’t have any room for ferns in your shade bed? Why not try them in shady planters? Last year’s hit was Autumn Fern with Heuchera and Black Mondo Grass. Above is a just planted shot of a cast stone urn with Maidenhair Fern, Begonia grandis and silvery Sansevieria and Dichondra, as seen above.

If you are interested to discover more, let me direct you to a few resources: The American Fern Society, as well as my bible for ferns, John Mickel’s Ferns for American Gardens .  A handy pocket guide for casual identifying is the Peterson Field Guide: Ferns. 

Here is our current fern listing. Have any suggestions on special ferns to try?

Anemone sylvestris

anemonesylvestrisweb Anemone sylvestris, is simply lovely and so innocent-looking, but perhaps it should be introduced to you as a potential ground cover. Commonly known as Snowdrop Anemone, this super hardy gem begins blooming in mid-late spring, producing nodding buds which open to 5 petaled white blossoms centered with a ring of yellow stamens. The blossoms, buoyantly dance on 12-18” stems, which are good for cutting, emit a soft early spring fragrance.   Although it is a European native, it looks right at home in naturalistic landscapes here in the US, spreading vigorously by rhizomes, and it is very effective for disguising early spring bulb foliage. The wooly seed heads that develop once the blossoms fade add visual interest later in the summer.  Occasionally, a small flush of flowering in takes place early fall.

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Anemone sylvestris is happiest in a rich well drained soil, and is hardy in zones 4-8. It is not fond of extreme heat, so best to hold off in southern gardens. There are no serious insect or disease problems and it is deer resistant.

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Mukdenia rossii ‘Karasuba’

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Mukdenia should be grown in more gardens and I will speculate why it is not; it has had the misfortune of having more than one Latin name, which gets confusing. For awhile the taxonomists declared it should be called Aceriphyllum rossii, which makes sense (Acer = maple) and the foliage does have exquisite rounded maple like leaves. The cultivar name has a translation that would be easy to remember as well, ‘Crimson Fans’.

I am sweet on its blossoms. In mid spring, Mukdenia produces sturdy 15-18” stems bearing rounded panicles of starry white flowers, just before and as the foliage appears, welcoming the bees into the garden. Mukdenia makes pleasant company for early blooming bulbs and Epimedium. The somewhat glossy, somewhat velvety, dark green foliage forms tight clumps to 12” tall, keeping their good looks all summer, then change vividly to brilliant shades of red when cool temperatures arrive in autumn. We’ve found that Mukdenia grows best with afternoon shade in a soil that has good drainage yet is fertile and adequately moist. You will be pleased to know it is hardy in zones 4-8 and is also deer resistant.

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Tricyrtis hirta ‘Tojen

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Tricyrtis hirta ‘Tojen’

A must have plant for the late summer/fall shade garden is Tricyrtis hirta, commonly known as Japanese Orchid or Toad Lily. There are numerous cultivars; one I am especially fond of is the selection ‘’Tojen’’ , with has unspotted lavender, orchid like flowers held in loose sprays on sturdy stems above large lush foliage.

Toad Lilies enjoys a rich welled drained soil that stays adequately moist in the growing season. ‘’Tojen’’ is more forgiving of drier soils than other cultivars, but I recommended keeping the soil irrigated to keep plants at their best in late summer when they really show off. ‘‘Tojen’ grows 24-30”” tall by 30”” wide and is hardy in zones 5-8. Some great companion plants are Kirengeshoma palmata, Begonia grandis and late blooming Hosta such as ‘’Red October’’.

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Beesia deltophylla

Beesia deltophylla in bloom in early June

Beesia deltophylla in bloom in early June

We shouldn’t be surprised many people do not know or grow little Beesia. This Buttercup relative was brought into the U.S. from China by Dan Hinkley of Heronswood Gardens fame less than 20 years go. Sometimes thought of as a west coast plant, we have found that when sited in a protected spot it has thrived for half a dozen years in our zone 6A garden.

Beesia deltophylla is semi evergreen for us, but in mild winter climates folks can enjoy its glossy dark green heart shaped foliage all year round. The silvery veining adds a nice accent, and in late spring and early summer it sends up 10-15″ stems bearing dainty white flowers. We have included it with Hellebores, Epimedium and Hakonechloa in an understory planting under our ancient oak tree.

To grow Beesia well, provide a well drained soil that is rich with humus, and irrigate during dry spells. In cold climates like ours, let the fallen leaves acts as a winter mulch or spread sterile straw over the plants to protect from cruel winter winds. We suggest using it in urban gardens, which are often more protected.

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Impatiens omeiana

Garden designers may bypass this  late blooming hardy impatiens for bolder showier forms, but gardeners with a curious streak will want to try little Impatiens omeiana Growing only 6-8″ tall for us, I hear it gets to  a robust height (12-15″) in milder climates. Apricot yellow flowers with red speckled throats appear in September and October. The notched narrow elliptical dark green leaves have a striking white midline, and since this plant is stoloniferous, it can become a handsome ground cover whether it is in bloom or not. Plants prefer partial to full shade and a soil that is moist during the growing season but require good drainage to winter over. It is native to Mt Omei, China and would make a good companion plant with Tricyrtis, Tiarella and dwarf Rhododendrons.

 

Peucedanum ostruthium ‘Daphnis’

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Looking for a new perennial to brighten up a shady spot? Consider this variegated form of Peuce, also known as the other Masterwort, (no, it’s not Astrantia). Peucedanum ostruthium ‘Daphnis’ is a recent introduction from France, and we’ve stumped a number of plant pros with its identity. At first glance it looks like a refined form of Variegated Aegopodium (Goutweed), and as people shudder with horror, we calm their fears immediately. Peucedanum forms tidy clumps, and is not invasive. It does have lovely cream, gray and green foliage, grows 8-10″ tall and spreads to about 15-18″. Flowers, born on 20″ stems in early summer resemble Queen Anne’s Lace, and are lovely cut.

Peucedanum ostruthium ‘Daphnis’ is easy to grow, preferring an average to moist soil in partial to full shade, but will take even more sun in moist settings.  We know it is hardy in zones 5-9, but it may in fact prove even more cold tolerant. It is an attractive foil for Ferns, Hakonechloa macra or dark green Hosta.

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Epimedium Love

Epimedium ‘Purple Pixie’

Fairy Wings, Bishop’s Cap, Barrenwort, Horny Goatweed; all delightful common names which are applied to the genus Epimedium (well maybe not Barrenwort and Horny Goatweed).   Barrenwort refers to the medicinal properties of Epimedium, reportedly used to suppress pregnancy. I bet you can guess what Horny Goatweed will do for you.  Bishop’s Cap, (referring to the long spurred forms, perhaps?) reminds one of headgear worn by certain religious leaders. My vote for best common name is Fairy Wings. The magical looking blossoms conjure up images of fairy tale flowers carpeting the forest floor. I’ve noticed when children visit our nursery and gardens, they pause as they pass by our Epimedium collection. “What are these?” they ask.  The curiosity factor kicks in: here are plants which do not offer the more familiar flower shapes of daisies, saucers or spikes.

Botanically speaking, Epimedium are members of the barberry family, Berberidaceae, (no, they do not have prickers, but there is a similarity when you observe  the flowers).  There are Epimedium species native to eastern Europe and northern Africa as well as Japan, but the most species are found in China.

The basic Epimedium flower structure is composed of 4 outer sepals, 4 inner sepals (sometimes in the form of spurs) and 4 petals (the “cup” part) inside which you will find the stamens. Of course there are variations, depending on the species or crosses of these species of this large genus.  Some selections have very short outer sepals, some have extra long inner sepals, and vice versa.  Some forms have double sepals. Some forms have sprays of dozens of small flowers per stem, while others boast larger blossoms in both large numbers and small. The more you explore this genus the more subtle or extreme variations you will discover. Over the past 30 years numerous new selections have been hybridized and introduced by Darrel Probst of MA and Robin White of the UK, and we are indebted to both for making more of these great plants available.

Epimedium are easy to grow, but although they are often mentioned as a groundcover they do not spread that rapidly. They prefer a rich humus soil with partial shade, where they will grow most luxuriantly.  That being said, Epimedium are quite adaptable and will perform well in dry conditions in deeper shade, making them useful subjects under trees and shrubs. Most Epimedium like a neutral to slightly alkaline pH, but I’ve been told that the grandiflorum selections prefer slightly acidic soil conditions.  The foliage of Epimedium, besides being deer proof,  is always attractive and offers interesting variations of size and coloring: small, elongated, mottled, banded, serrated and more.  Some species are evergreen in milder climates, but  the hardiest forms are usually deciduous. In either case, it is best to cut back last year’s foliage in early spring, before new growth and flowering shoots emerge, so last year’s blemished leaves do not mar the display. Blooming period, depending on what zone you live in, begins as early as March and continues well into May. Plant height varies depending on which cultivar you are growing, but most form low clumps suitable for the front of the border. Epimedium make excellent companions to spring blooming bulbs and perennials, such as woodland Phlox, hellebores and ferns, There are forms of Epimedium which are hardy into zone 3, but most selections fall into the hardiness ranges of zones 5-8.

Here are a few selections we are enchanted by. Perhaps you will fall in love with them too.

Epimedium ‘Cranberry Splash’

Epimedium ‘Bandit’

Epimedium ‘Domino’, A Darrel Probst selection

Epimedium ‘Pink Elf’, a Robin White selection

Epimedium warleyense

Epimedium x ‘Amber Queen’

Epimedium ‘Pink Champagne’

 We have limited amounts these selections from time to time. If out o stock, click to be notified when they are available next. We acquired many of our selections from Garden Vision, a nursery specializing in Epimedium, begun by Darrell Probst and Karen Perkins. Garden Vision has a new web page . Karen can be contacted at karen@epimediums.com for the current list.

Boehmeria platanifolia

Boehmeria platanifoliaThe longer we garden the more we appreciate both subtlety and contrast… especially when a plant makes you do a double take because of some extraordinary features. Boehmeria platanifolia is one of these plants: unique foliage, size, with late summer pale green flowers. This species of Boehmeria has large sycamore shaped green leaves (up to 5″) with serrated edges and covered with tiny hairs giving the plant a soft glow. The leaves attach to the sturdy stems with contrasting red petioles. Green tassel flowers emerge from the branch tips in August and continue to droop into the fall.

Boehemeria platanifolia performs best in partial shade, in a soil that is evenly moist. Established plants can grow to 5′ tall and 4′ wide. It is a Japanese member of the Nettle family, Urticaceae, and this particular species is quite hardy…reports say to zone 4, but we’ll play it safe in saying it will grow well in zones 5-8.

Combines well with Tricyrtis (toadliles), Begonia grandis (Hardy Begonia) and Leucoseptrum (Japanese Wood Mint) in the fall shade garden.

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Schizophragma hydrangeoides

I’m surprised that Japanese Hydrangea Vine, Schizophragma hydrangeoides, isn’t planted more often. You can easily see the similarities to Hydrangea anomala petiolaris, the common climbing Hydrangea, but in my opinion it is a much prettier plant, and becomes established more quickly. It grows well in sun or quite a bit of shade and is hardy in zones 5-9.

Schizophragma hydrangeoides differs from Climbing Hydrangea in it’s growth habit and its blossoms differ slightly as well. Schizophragma grows rather flat against it’s climbing surface, attaching by aerial roots, as opposed to Climbing Hydrangea which sends out protruding branches. It is quite handsome climbing up limbed tall trees, as well as trained along a tall wall, reaching 20-30′ with time. In late June and July, 8-10″ flattened corymbs of tiny fragrant white fertile flowers ringed with showy heart shaped sepals appear, and age wonderfully through the season. (If you study a Climbing Hydrangea blossom, the sterile flowers are actually composed of 4 sepals.) There are several good cultivars to choose from: Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Roseum’ has lovely rose flushed sepals, and Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Moonlight’ has beautiful blue green ovate leaves with a silverly overlay, and the same large white flowers. Fall foliage on all forms takes on various hues of red, and in warmer climates, sometimes yellow tones.

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