Category Archives: Shade Gardening

plants that like shade

Rhododendron diversipilosum ‘Milky Way’

Rhododendron diversipilosum 'Milky Way'

Image courtesy of Briggs Propagators

We thought you might enjoy the subtle charm of this hardy little known Rhododendron (perhaps nomenclature is its problem) . Commonly called Labrador Tea, formerly classified in the genus Ledum, and then later named R. tomentosum, there’s been obvious confusion when gardeners are seeking information. ‘Milky Way’ is a superior clone selected by Steve Hootman. In mid April, it produces trusses of small white starry flowers, which allude to its cultivar name. Fine textured evergreen foliage is small narrow and olive green.

Rhododendron diversipilosum ‘Milky Way’ is quite cold hardy, growing well in zones 3-6. It can take poor soil conditions but will be happiest if given a well drained soil with humus and regular moisture in sun or partial shade. Plants grow to 3′ in height and up to 5′ in width. It would be a great addition to a rock garden planted with early spring Narcissus, Hellebores and Veronica ‘Georgia Blue’.

Helleborus niger ‘HGC Jacob’

You may be curious about Helleborus niger. It is the botanical name for the legendary Christmas Rose, but its Latin name translates to “Black Hellebore”.  A little confusing to us in modern times, since we see white flowers. During the Middle Ages it was commonly called Black Hellebore (a name also applied to other European Helleborus species) to distinguish it from White Hellebore (Veratrum), both of which had medicinal, if not toxic, properties.

The other common name comes from Christian mythology. The story goes that a young girl’s tears falling onto new fallen snow caused a group of Hellebores to burst into bloom, providing her with a gift for the newborn Christ Child, and thus, H. niger became known as the Christmas Rose.  The trouble with this story is that the old varieties of Hellebrous niger rarely bloom sooner than mid January, and that is only in mild winter areas, so perhaps this was a belated gift.

Now, thanks to the busy German breeder Hueger, a new cultivar has been introduced which blooms as early as Thanksgiving, with a good display of 2-3″ pristine white single rose flowers in full display by mid December. This compact new cultivar, growing to  roughly 12? x 12?,  is being marketed under the name Helleborus ‘HGC Jacob’. (HGC stands for Helleborus Gold Collection, and but I think they should ditch the monogram for marketing reasons). It is hardy in zones 5-9.

Culturally this evergreen perennial prefers a well drained rich soil that is slightly alkaline. Site ‘HGC Jacob’in a protected area, so that winter winds do not desiccate the foliage and flowers, in partial shade. As an insurance measure, apply a mulch of fallen leaves around this little Hellebore, and on mild days, pay him a visit as he peaks through his protective layer. He will put a smile on your face.

Fothergilla x ‘Blue Shadow’

With Halloween just weeks away, it’s fitting that we take a look at a very colorful Witch Alder. The Witch Alders, as you may guess, are closely related to Witch Hazels, and are native to the southeastern US.  They are multi season plants, with honey scented white bottle brush flowers emerging in early spring (just before and as the plants leaf out), plus attractive form and outstanding fall color. One we are pleased to be growing is Fothergilla x ‘Blue Shadow’ notable for the lovely glaucous blue foliage it displays all summer.

Fothergilla x ‘Blue Shadow’ was discovered by Gary Handy of Boring OR, when he noticed this very blue leaved sport on another fine cultivar, Fothergilla ‘Mt Airy’. It’s a vigorous but compact grower, with an upright habit at first, then becoming thicker with age, and finally achieving 5-6′ in height and width. ‘Blue Shadow’ grows well in full sun or partial shade, prefers a reasonably moist but well drained slightly acidic soil, and is quite hardy in zones 4-8. It can be used as a focal point, or planted en masse at the edge of a woodland. So many plants would make great companions. For spring interest, pair with dwarf Rhododendrons; for summer, Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Peewee’ , and for fall the golden Leucosceptrum  and Carex ‘Blue Bunny’ to compliment ‘Blue Shadow’s technicolor display.

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Leucosceptrum japonicum ‘Gold Angel’

Japanese Mint Shrub, although not a primary player, is a plant that will make a nice addition to your partially shaded areas. For the whole growing season, it is cloaked in golden yellow, opposite, toothed leaves, and then at last in October and November, the stems erupt with creamy yellow bottle brush spires. For most of us Leptoceptrum japonicum ‘Gold Angel’ behaves as a herbaceous perennial, growing to 3′ in height and width, although in mild climate zones it may in fact develop a woody base. If that’s the case, cut it back hard in the spring to maintain a tidy shape.

You can combine Leucoceptrum japonicum ‘Gold Angel’ with so many plants, but it’s a great companion to the shade classics: Kirengeshoma palmata, Begonia grandis, bold leaved Hosta as well as shrubs such as Fothergilla ‘Blue Shadow’, Clethra barbinervis and of course Japanese Maples . Easy to grow, attractive gold foliage, hardy in zones 4-8, tolerates shade, blooms in the fall. Wow! Why aren’t you growing Japanese Mint Shrub?

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Spiranthes cernua ‘Chadd’s Ford’

Image courtesy of North Creek Nursery

This quite lovely eastern native terrestrial orchid might be quite at home in your garden, especially if you have a spot that stays on the moist side with perhaps 3-4 hours, or more, of sunlight. And at this time of year,  it offers deliciously scented blossoms lovely enough for cutting and using in wedding arrangements.

Spiranthes cernua can be grown in a wide range of hardiness zones (3-8). Native populations can be found in sandy moist lowlands in diverse areas, from Florida north into Quebec and Newfoundland. It forms ground-hugging rosettes of silvery green strap like leaves, and over time, can form good sized colonies in wet soil, even in bogs or swamps. This particular selection was discovered in the Delaware Valley region and named for the southeastern PA town of Chadd?s Ford. In September and October,  Nodding Ladies Tresses, as it is commonly called, bear scented creamy white orchid blossoms arranged in a spiral fashion around sturdy 1-2′ stems. The fragrance is beguilingly reminiscent of jasmine and vanilla.

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Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’

Autumn Fern with Epimedium and Heuchera ‘Caramel’ in early spring

Designing a garden that still looks good in the fall requires using a palette of plants whose foliage remains clean and attractive throughout the summer.  Autumn Fern, or Dryopteris erythrosora  ‘Brilliance’is on the top of our list for its durable good looks and easy care.  It begins unfurling for the season in late April here in New England, with coppery pink fronds, which we could also associate with autumn tones. These fronds age to green, but new ones are continually produced all season to create a dual toned effect right into fall. When autumn temperatures prevail, the older green fronds take on warm russet shades.

Dryopteris erythrosora 'Brilliance'

Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’  prefers to grow in evenly moist slightly acidic soil that is well drained, although we?ve found it to be forgiving of dryer situations.  It can be grown in a spot that receives a half day of sun as well as a locale that is quite shady.  Height is usually in the 18-24? range, but it could possibly grow taller when grown in super rich, damp soil. Autumn Fern will remain evergreen in most winters, but by late winter snow loads may have collapsed the foliage to an unattractive mat. Once spring warmth returns, remove those old leaves to allow the fresh new growth to emerge.  Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’ can be grown in zones 3-8, which includes much of the continental United Sates.

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Chasmanthium latifolium ‘River Mist’

Chasmanthium latifolium ‘River Mist’ (image courtesy of Itsaul Plants)

Chasmanthium latifolium ‘River Mist’ is another plant whose charms are not revealed well in a photograph. This variegated selection of Northern Sea Oats, an American native grass with a bamboo likeness, has light and lovely white striped foliage/seed heads, and performs a graceful dance in the garden with any gentle breeze. It does particularly well in light shade and is stunning used en masse or as a vertical focal point in containers. The foliage forms clumps 12-15″ tall and 24″ wide. 30″ stalks bear the showy striped seed heads in late summer and early fall. Take advantage of siting ‘River Mist’ where backlighting will add drama to the display, or use it against a darker shades to set off the white striping.

The objection some may have to this attractive native grass is that it does self-sow, though perhaps not as vigorously as the straight species, and the seedlings are usually not variegated. What one should do to avoid the unwanted seedlings is to cut the attractive flowering stalks for flower arrangements.  Plants are tough and hardy in zones 4-9, making them suitable for gardens throughout much of the U.S.

Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’

Aralia cordata 'Sun King'Need a bold, deer resistant plant for the shade garden? Consider Aralia cordata’Sun King‘, tropical in appearance, but a really good option for cold climate gardens.  Hardy in zones 3-8, this choice selection of Spikenard is slow at first, but once established, forms a 3′ x 3′ mound of broad compound brilliant yellow foliage. It retains a golden glow throughout the summer as long as it gets 2-3 hours of sunlight. Sturdy 3-4′ stalks emerge in mid August, each topped with a small fireworks display of white flowers. Dark fruit follow the floral display. When the show is over, ‘Sun King’ will need a rest and will die back with the first hard frost.

Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’ grows best in a rich but well drained soil that has available moisture during the growing season. Good companion plants, besides Hosta, include Actaea ‘Hillside Black Beauty’, Fargesia scabrida, Kirengeshoma palmata and Hakonechloa macro .

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Disporum flavens

Disporum flavumSo easy, so stunning, so underplanted. A dozen years ago, our plant buddy Margie Mott visited us bearing gifts, including a clump of this beauty from one of the gardens she tended. She informed us that we needed to grow this plant, and she was so right! Disporum flavens emerges gracefully in early mid spring with stiff arching 18-24″ stalks adorned with apple green leaves and nodding lemon yellow bells in May. The floral display carries on for a couple of weeks, after which the foliage remains attractive and well behaved.

The common names for Disporum vary. We’ve heard it referred to as Yellow Mandarin and Yellow Fairy Bells. It is in the Colchichum family, which also include two hundred plus species of herbaceous perennials which grow from roots that form rhizomes and corms. Disporum flavens is slow to increase, but forms dense clumps over time and is very long lived. It prefers soil that is rich with humus but well drained soil in partial shade and is hardy to minus 20F (zone 5). Great companion plants are dark flowered Hellebores such as ‘Midnight Ruffles’ ,  Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’ and  Heucherella ‘Sweet Tea?’, as well as any Hosta.

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Sanguinaria canadensis ‘Multiplex’

Double Blood RootSanguinaria canadensis ‘Multiplex’, commonly known as Double Blood Root is one of the eastern seaboard’s most lovely spring ephemerals, (that is to say, perennials which emerge with the first sweep of warm weather, and almost as quickly pass, retreating over the next few months into summer dormancy). Here in New England, Double Blood Root begins to poke through the brown earth in mid April, displaying pristine white multi petaled water lily shaped blossoms cupped in barely visible blue green leaves. We always hope that the weather conditions will not be too hot and relatively calm when our Blood Root opens. Too much wind or warm temperatures will shorten the floral display.

Double Blood Root stands on short stems reaching just under 6″ tall. It grows best in rich, humusy, but well drained soil in a partial to deeply shaded site.  The rhizomes slowly spread to from dense clumps over time and when severed, exude a deep red liquid, hence the common name (sanguine = bloody). As the blossoms fade, the attractive blue green kidney shaped foliage grows larger in size, photosynthesizing to store energy for the roots below. It is advisable to mark the spot where Blood Root is growing. By mid summer, these attractive leaves will begin to fade into dormancy, and you might easily disturb the area by over planting. Good companion plants for Sanguinaria are mid season bulbs, Tillium, Podophylllum, AsarumEpimedium, Iris cristata, Woodland Phlox, and Brunnera.