Purple or red for high/full/dappled shade

kcwdadMarch 14, 2010

Hello fellow shadies,

Sorry for long post, trying to pre-answer as many questions as I can.

I'm looking for "year-round" purple or red foliage shrub or tree (deciduous ok but would prefer "evergreen", so long as it's not ever green) 3' or higher, for well-drained but irrigatable loamy area beneath high-limbed doug firs in Bellevue, WA (zone 8). Under consideration:

- Sambucus nigra 'Black Lace' (Elderberry)

- Corylus maxima Purpurea (Hazel)

- Hydrangea 'lady in red'

- Japanese maple? (dwarf variety that is always red or purple?)

These have the right look (esp sambucus or lacy maple with both texture and color contrast). Question is whether they'd keep enough of this look -- and survive of course -- in my shade situation. I've ruled out all green/light green/cream variegation (too many shades of green in this space already, need to really break it up), and don't wan't only occaisional color (e.g. pieris growth, or relying on blooms).

I've read most/all shade definitions and find no single term best describes my environment, so if you'll pardon the specificity, here's situation in early spring (imagine it getting 20% more light in summer):

- 1 hr direct to very lightly dappled sunlight

- 1 hr of dappled sunlight

- 3-4 hr ambient/reflected light (nearest limbs from doug firs are 40' up, although there are decidious and other doug firs in other parts of yard that cast their shadows)

- Oh yeah, it's Seattle area, so this all describes a sunny morning, which is true maybe 25% of time in spring/fall, 50% summer.

In this same space I am growing camelia sasquanna, sweetspire, heuchera and even the tail end of a bit of creeping veronica. All are alive after several years, the camelia and veronica bloom a reasonable amount (considering) for a few weeks. So I guess that's good evidence that it's better than "deep shade" although that would probably be the best description if forced to choose a single term.

So my question is, anyone have experience or hunch on which of the options I'm looking at would do better, OR any options I'm overlooking?

As an aside, my fantasy is 1) a battery-powered, computerized light sensor you stick in ground anywhere, storing light data over time (and while we're at it, moisture) and (when connected via USB to your computer) spitting out a set of scores, 2) online community-driven database with range of light scores suitable for each plant. Crazy?

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Of the plants you list, the Japanese maple is the most shade tolerant and will maintain the color best. The sambucus prefers full sun, the hydrangea is not really red at all (reddish-pink flowers and perhaps some fall color, much less in shade) and the corylus is not very shade tolerant and will fade out to green in midsummer anyway. I have a red laceleaf JM in a very similar situation and it maintains its color well and is very happy under the Doug firs and western red cedars :-)

None of these are evergreen, however :-) Unfortunately, evergreen plants with year round red or burgundy foliage are rather limited and nearly all need as much sun as possible to retain that coloring.

There are a couple of other plants that will provide at last some seasonal redness. Disanthus cercidifolius is a shade loving shrub that consistently turns amazing shades of burgundy and copper in fall, even in quite heavy shade. It is deciduous. Dwarf leucothoe is also very shade tolerant, a low growing evergreen shrub that gets very red coloring in response to cold temperatures (i.e., winter) - look for Leucothoe fontanesiana 'Scarletta'. Needs regular moisture. And wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens, will respond to cold temperatures by turning a deep red in winter - more sun, more color. This is a groundcover.

That's about all I can think of that would fit your requirements - I'd go with the maple :-)

    Bookmark   March 19, 2010 at 12:48PM
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Forgot to add that plants with dark foliage tend to recede and can become virtually invisible in a shady location. For contrast and 'pop' against a shady, dark green background, you should try something with yellow foliage or with strong variegation. There are far more of these to choose from for a shady location, including a great many that are evergreen, and most prefer to be in shade to maintain their coloring and reduce the chance of sun scorch.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2010 at 1:01PM
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Thanks gardengal, great advice. There's plenty of ambient light to see contrast of a red laceleaf JM, and I could live with decidious in exchange for a blast of color.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2010 at 9:21PM
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