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  • Writer's pictureJefferson Landscape

Cool Off With Some Shade Plants

If you’re fortunate enough to have a shady part of the yard, it can be a cool respite in the dense heat of summer and a wildlife habitat for birds and other creatures who use it for shelter and nesting. Also, a great place for a bench and water feature—anything from a birdbath to an ecosystem pond depending on the size. All kinds of cool plants grow in the shade: Azaleas, Astilbes, Ferns, Hostas, Dicentra, Foxglove, Fuchsia, groundcovers like Mint, Strawberry, Moss and much, much more.

Even if you aren’t intentionally gardening for the shade, planter areas around your home may be considered shade gardens from your plant’s perspective—like a planter area on the side of your home that only receives late afternoon sun. Even if there are no trees lending shade to that side of your home, anything you plant there will probably need to be for “partial shade”. A tree with a large canopy or a small stand of trees may give you a full shade garden.

While most plants will survive either way (even shade plants like Hydrangeas or Tasmanian Tree Ferns will adapt to full sun after burning the first couple years), in order to thrive, some shade plants require at least 4 hours of sunlight each day. Others demand none at all. There will always be different densities of shade within your landscape, so depending on how much attention you give to which plant goes where, your plants can do very well. Planting along the edge of a tree’s shade line may get light shade which would be great for a border of coral bells or spring bloomers like Daffodils and Daylilies, but the areas beneath trees may only be appropriate for Hostas or Clivia Miniata (Kafir Lilies). Hydrangeas tend to be a little fussy – they’ll grow tons of foliage in shade but benefit from a little kiss from the sun every day for magnificent flowers.

Keep in mind, the soil in a shade garden will stay damp and cold longer into the spring, which means your shade plants may be a little slow to start every year. How slow and wet depends on the density of the tree canopy, obstacles limiting rainfall or the direction the garden faces. Your light may range from intense, open sunlight all day to dense shade in a corner.

Shade plants sometimes come with different descriptions so it’s worth it to note these definitions in case you’re starting a project and come across these details while selecting plants. By understanding the shade densities and the potential effect they will ultimately have on your choices, it will also help you to choose the correct plants. Whether you visit your nursery or Google options to select from Jefferson Landscape and Design’s Client Plant List, most plants will have some indication as to their required sun exposure, such as “some shade” or “shade” (or “partial shade” , “dense shade” , “open shade” etc.).

Light Shade is defined as areas that receive 4-6 hours of direct sunlight each day, which is the best situation for most shade plants to thrive. This is an important requirement for shade plants that flower, like Rhododendron, Dogwood, Impatiens, Bergenia, Azalea, Hydrangea, Mountain Laurel, Pieris, Viburnum, and Hellebore.

Open Shade is defined as an area that’s exposed to the sky but gets little to no direct sunlight. This is frequently confused with light shade. For instance, you have open shade if a wall of your home throws a shadow across the garden, but sunlight is not blocked from overhead. Open shade areas are perfect for plants with foliage that will burn in intense sunlight, like Hostas, Ferns, and certain Japanese Maples.

Dappled Shade is an area exposed to 2-3 hours of sunlight each day filtered through the trees overhead. This is one of the best conditions for woodland plants like Ferns, which thrive in dappled shade. Rhododendrons and Azaleas will grow well in dappled shade but will flower considerably less than if grown in open shade.

Deep Shade is an area that receives no direct sunlight and is dry and dark, like that under a very dense tree canopy – think of a deep forest or that area under your pine trees. Few plants will grow well in deep shade, except for groundcovers like Wild Ginger, Ferns and Japanese Aralia.

The following selections were provided by UC Davis:

Part Shade to Full Shade Perennials with Low to Medium Water Requirement

• Bergenia Crassifolia (Pigsqueak)

• Cyclamen Hederifolium (Ivy Leaf Cyclamen)

• Echeveria ‘Imbricata’ (Hen and Chicks)

• Sedum Palmeri (Palmer’s Sedum)

• Helleborus x hybridus (Lenten Rose)

• Aquilegia Eximia (Serpentine Columbine)

• Bletilla Striata (Chinese Ground Orchid)

• Heuchera (Lillian’s Pink)

• Heuchera (‘Rosada’)

• Heuchera Maxima

Low or Very Low Water Use Perennials that Tolerate Shade

• Aquilegia (Columbine): low 1-3 ft. Blooms in spring, good hummingbird plant,

filtered shade

• Cyclamen: 8 inches. Blooms in late winter. Needs some shade in summer.

• Dietes (Fortnight Lily): 2 ft. Very tough plant. Partial shade to full sun. Narrow, iris like leaves, cream, white, or yellow flower.

• Helleborus: Low to moderate water use. 1-3 ft. Partial sun to deep shade. Deer avoid it.

• Heuchera (Coralbells, Alumroot): 1-2 ft. Medium water use. Shade or partial shade. Mainly grown for foliage.

• Iris Douglasiana (Douglas Iris), also Iris (Pacific Coast Hybrids): 1-3 ft. Spring flowers. Tolerates shade

• Mimulus Aurantiacus and Mimulus (Sticky Monkeyflower): 1-3 ft. Partial shade to full sun. Deer proof.

• Monardella Villosa (Coyote Mint): 8 inches to 1 ½ ft. Minty scent, evergreen

foliage, purple flower that attracts pollinators and butterflies. Full sun to partial shade.

• Penstemon - California native: 1 ft to 6 ft. Many flower colors from purples and pinks

to reds and blues, attracts hummingbirds, some are evergreen.

• Salvia Spathacea (Hummingbird Sage): 1 to 3 ft. Low sun to partial shade. Grows well in dry shade. Great plant for bees and hummingbirds, can be invasive.

• Sisyrinchium Bellum (Blue-eyed Grass) – California native: 12 inches. Sun to partial shade. Narrow leaves, flowers in spring.

Shrubs that Tolerate Shade Low Water Use

• Ceanothus (California lilac) – California native: From Groundcover to 15 ft. Many species. Sun to partial shade. Attracts beneficial insects and pollinators, showy blue to white flowers in spring, depending on variety.

• Correa (Australian Fuchsia): 2-8 ft. Spreading. Partial sun to deep shade. Hummingbirds attracted to tubular flowers, evergreen.

• Cotinus Coggygria (Smoke Bush): 8 to 15 ft. Can be trained as a small tree, better as a tall shrub. Reddish to purplish leaves. Beautiful fall color, deciduous. Will tolerate shade.

• Eriogonum Giganteum (St. Catherine’s Lace Buckwheat): 4-8 ft. Large lacy white flowers that attract beneficial insects and pollinators. Full sun to partial shade. Evergreen.

• Garrya Elliptica (Silk Tassel): 8-12 ft. Evergreen. Can be used as hedge or screen. Sun to partial shade.

• Loropetalum Chinense (Fringe Flower): 3-5 ft. in rare cases can get taller depending on cultivator. Purplish or red leaves with lavender to pink flowers. Evergreen. Partial to heavy shade in inland climates.

• Nandina Domestica (Heavenly bamboo): 2-6 ft. Evergreen. Foliage turns orange to scarlet in fall. Full sun to partial shade.

• Prunus Illicifolia (Holly Leaf Cherry) – California Native: Small tree or shrub (rarely) up to 30 ft. Slow grower. Evergreen. Sun to partial shade.

• Myrtus Communis (Myrtle): 3-6 ft. Partial shade to full sun. Deer resistant. Evergreen. Tolerates pruning well, easy maintenance.

• Pittosporum Tobira (Mock Orange): 3-15 ft. depending upon cultivar. Full sun to partial shade. Evergreen.

• Plumbago Auriculata (Cape Plumbago): 4 ft. Long spreading branches. Intense light blue to bright blue flowers in clusters all summer. Evergreen. Dies in frosty climates. Sun to partial shade.

• Rhamnus Californica (Coffeeberry) – California Native: l3-15 ft. depending on cultivar. Sun or

partial shade. Good wildlife plant, flowers attract beneficial insects, berries are eaten by

birds. Evergreen, low maintenance.

• Rhaphiolepsis (Indian Hawthorn): 3-6 ft. depends on species. Evergreen, pink flowers in spring. Full sun to partial shade.

• Rhus Ovata (Sugar Bush) – California Native: 8-12 ft. Evergreen. Sun to shade.

• Ribes Aereum (Golden Current): 4-10 ft. Sun to partial shade. Deciduous.

• Ribes Viburnifolium (Evergreen Currant) – California Native: 3 ft. Great shade plant.

• Sarcococca (Sweet Box): 1 ½ - 8 ft. depending on species. Fragrant. Dark green shiny evergreen foliage, white fragrant flowers. Few pests. Partial shade to full shade.

Jefferson Landscape and Design Shade Favorites

Clivia Miniata ‘Kifar Lily’

Fuchsia ‘Voodoo’

Acacia Cognata ‘Cousin Itt’

Dicentra ‘Bleeding Heart’



Salvia Varieties

Fern Varieties


Fatsia Japonica ‘Japanese Aralia’

Hakonechloa ‘Japanese Forest Grass’

Penstemon Varieties

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