recommended plants for heavy, heavy shade in Zone 7

tlacuacheFebruary 9, 2009

This winter, I'm working on developing a large new planting area in my yard, which is always an exciting experience. It's trickier than usual, though, because the bed begins on the north side of the house, and then extends into a thickly wooded area full of large maple, sweetgum, and tulip poplar trees. Needless to say, the one thing this whole area shares is very, very deep shade, especially in the summer. Obviously, these conditions greatly limit the range of ornamental plants I can grow there, and that's okay. I'm comfortable with it being a low-key, woodsy area. I am trying to compile a checklist of plants that will grow and thrive around here in heavy shade. I'm not talking about plants that will merely survive, but truly prosper in the darkness. I don't want azaleas or camellias or hydrangeas that will languish and not flower from lack of sun. Many ferns of course will qualify, although I've actually found that unfortunately some of the showiest ferns for our area like Autumn Ferns and Painted Ferns really need at least a little direct sunshine to look their best. So, here's my list of other plants--woodies and robust perennials--that I've found will really do well in such heavy shade:

Anise Shrubs - Illicium spp.

Aucuba - Aucuba japonica

Cast-Iron Plant - Aspidistra elatior

English Ivy - Hedera helix

Florida Leucothoe - Agarista populifolia

Japanese Aralia - Fatsia japonica

Mahonia - Mahonia spp.

Marlberry - Ardisia japonica

Monkey Grass - Liriope spp.

Poet's Laurel - Danae racemosa

Sacred Lily - Rohdea japonica

Sweetbox - Sarcococca confusa or ruscifolia

I would love to hear whatever suggestions anybody might have for additions to this list, they would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

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In regards to Anise, do choose Illicium floridanum - the most shade tolerant of the bunch.

English ivy - not a good choice; it will get aggressive in a few years and be a pest. The people that come after you will be sorry you used it (and you might too if you stay there more than 5 years).

Mahonia - be sure to choose Mahonia aquifolium - the other ones are becoming invasive in the southeast due to spread of the berries.

Monkey grass - again potential to be invasive; instead of Liriope, consider Ophiopogon japonicus.

For ferns, consider both the Southern and the Northern maidenhair ferns. Despite the names, both should do well in your area.

Hemlock is a very shade tolerant tree if you need that.

    Bookmark   February 10, 2009 at 9:35AM
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donnabaskets(Zone 8a, Central MS)

Polygonatum variegatum (Variegated Solomon's Seal)
Pieris: The one I have is plain green, is in deep shade, though gets moisture, and has been blooming this month. It doesn't even get much sun in the winter. I love it.
Camellias, both sasanqua and japonica. Mine do very well in conditions you describe. They're pretty drought tolerant too, once established.
Southern Maidenhair Fern (needs moisture). My second fave fern.
Bletilla (bulb): Beautiful blooms, great foliage.
Hellebores (evergreen, too)
I have a variegated Gardenia that does well in deep shape. Never blooms, but the golden variegated foliage is beautiful.
Don't expect your Danae to berry in deep shade, but otherwise, it will do well.
Nandina (there are non berrying forms if you worry about invasiveness)
Selaginella braunii (Arborvitae fern): my favorite fern. It does need some moisture. It's evergreen.
River fern (Thelypteris) It's indestructible. Takes full sun all the way to deep shade and doesn't demand much moisture either. It runs, though not fast.
Phlox Divaricata (one of my very favorite perennials)
Don't forget winter and spring bulbs that will come up, bloom, and go dormant before the trees leaf back out: daffodils, spanish hyacinths, arum italicum pictum, cyclamens to name a few

    Bookmark   February 10, 2009 at 9:23PM
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Thanks for the suggestions. esh-_ga, I certainly didnt mean that I intended to plant any of the spreading, rampant forms of English ivy, which as you say is extremely invasive. But IÂve really enjoyed some of the adult or "bush ivy" forms, which are just as tough and shade-tolerant but donÂt takeover. Also, you mentioned that all mahonias other than M. aquifolium should be avoided sue to potential invasiveness; IÂve definitely found M. bealei to be a major nuisance, but I havenÂt had any self-seeding problems with M. fortunei, which I adore for the shade. Have any of you?

Your suggestion of substituting Ophiopogon for Liriope is a good one.

Both of you mentioned maidenhair ferns. I havenÂt had much luck with them, and IÂve concluded that it was largely due to our strongly acidic soils. Do you have any tips?

donnabaskets: Bletilla, Selaginella, Thelypteris, Arum, and the variegated Gardenia are all excellent suggestions and duly noted. But for other plants like camellias, hellebores, and daffodils, I remain skeptical about their ability to flower consistently in such heavy shade as what IÂm dealing with here. I know that theyÂll all tolerate shade, but itÂs really, really dark in that part of the yard. I realize, though, that a problem with this whole discussion is that itÂs awfully hard to quantify the amount of sun or shade exposure in a given siteÂ"how shady is shady?" Without question, camellias will grow and flower in some shade, but how much shade is too much? Unfortunately, itÂs kinda hard to say. Interesting to talk about, though.

Any other suggestions for the heavily shaded new planting bed will be appreciated.

    Bookmark   February 12, 2009 at 9:03PM
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The bush ivy forms are just becoming more available and I tend not to assume that people are familiar with them. I did see them this year in the Plant Delights catalog.

I'll take your word on Mahonia fortunei - I don't have any personal experience with it. Sorry about making the general statement - most people don't have as much plant knowledge depth as you do.

We find Northern Maidenhair growing wild quite a bit here (more than Southern). We find it generally on sloped areas, an indicator perhaps of preferring good drainage? If the area is clay, work in some organic material like composted pine bark.

    Bookmark   February 13, 2009 at 8:02AM
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I have to agree about the hellebores (especially the caulescent species like argutifolius and lividus) and bletillas needing more light than your situation may provide. These are two genera in which I kind of specialize, and both are actually meadow plants which prefer a lot of light, under the right conditions. Neither blooms well for me if they become completely shaded out, as have some of my plantings over the years. One surprising success in my deep shade garden (under a gigantic Photinia which I keep hoping will prune itself...) has been Iris japonica. It spreads into an evergreen ground cover and blooms pretty well, even in shade, as long as a late frost doesn't nip it in the bud. It can be hard to find, but for zone 7, I think it's worth the search. Among the camellias, the japonicas are more shade tolerant than the sasanquas. Illicium henryi blooms better in shade for me than floridanum; its flowers are more pink than red.

Among other possibilities are the many varieties of Tricyrtis, Saruma henryi, any of the Asarums, Speirantha convallarioides (an odd little clumper that's related to lily of the valley, hence the specific name), the disporums and disporopsis, and trilliums, if any of your shade is deciduous at all.

    Bookmark   February 14, 2009 at 3:37AM
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pachysandra procumbens is a nice native groundcover that can tolerate heavy shade.
don't plant the asian one, though, as it is very aggressive.

    Bookmark   February 17, 2009 at 3:01PM
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Leatherleaf Viburnum will do well in heavy shade, I've heard it said that it would grow in a closet. I grew it on the northern edge of a heavily wooded area successfully.
If you have any damp areas in your deep shade you should try Styrax americanus, American snowbell. It will flower in late spring, and gets a lovely burgandy leaf color in fall. It can be difficult to find in nurseries but is well worth growing if you can find it. I was fortunate enough to have it growing on my property when we built our house. I almost had it cleared out because it's leaves look alot like privit. Fortunatley I saw it flower before we cleared and it clearly wasn't a privit.
Winter daphne will also grow in deep shade, as will Acuba japonica.

    Bookmark   February 18, 2009 at 9:40PM
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Wood fern would be a good choice and you could also do some Impatiens in that shade

    Bookmark   February 20, 2009 at 12:10AM
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In a north facing shady bed on the north side of my 2 story house, I have Fatsia, tree ivy and rose wood sorrel which all do well in the dense shade there. I also recently bought a variegated holly leafed tree olive that is doing well under trees and Acanthus also seems to do well in shade. Sometimes the problem in shade isn't just the shade but the competition with tree roots. Especially if you ammend the soil in the hole, then water the new plants...the tree roots come and fill the hole, smothering the new plant before it can get established. I think this is what killed an Edgeworthia I planted in a shady tree area.

    Bookmark   February 20, 2009 at 5:33PM
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Thanks for the generous suggestions, everybody. bubba62, I'm concerned that you're right about bletillas and hellebores (especially the caulescent ones) not getting enough sun to flower in areas like what I'm working with, and neither genus has a lot of ornamental value without flowers. Iris japonica is an excellent recommendation and a good example of exactly the kind of tip I was looking for. It's a plant that I've never grown in my yard, but that I've always admired elsewhere. I think it will provide nice semi-evergreen foliage, occasional flashy flowers, and kind of a spreading groundcover effect, even in dark shade. Cool. I also agree with your assessment of Illicium henryi as a choice selection, but unfortunately, I don't know of any nurseries around here that offer them in anything larger than 3-gallon pots, so I'll probably have to stick mainly with my old standby, I. floridanum 'Halley's Comet.' Tricyrtis, Saruma, Asarum, Disporum, Disporopsis, Speirantha (my favorite), Trillium, etc., etc., etc. are all worthy suggestions, but for now I think I'm going to focus just on larger, more substantial plants as I lay out the structure of the new beds, and then go back later and fill in the gaps with smaller little perennials like those.

jeff_al, I agree completely about Pachysandra procumbens, although I find its slow spread almost as frustrating as the aggressively rapidity of P. terminalis. Still, a better all-around choice, and I've put it on my list.

ncdirtdigger, leatherleaf viburnum is another great example of exactly what I was looking for with this post. It's another plant that I have never grown and had sort of forgotten about, but I have seen it prospering even in very heavy shade. And I think it's really pretty, too, although I've known some people to be repulsed by the droopy, wrinkly texture of the foliage. Aucubas were already on my list, but definitely worth another mention as indispensable elements of the deep shade landscape in this part of the country. I'm not sure if winter daphne will get enough sunlight to flower in any of the areas I'm working on, but I love it so much that I think it I'll give it a try. If nothing else, I know that it's one of the few shrubs that won't be bothered at all by the extreme root competition that it will face from the maples and sweetgums in the wooded portion of the new beds.

birdannelady, aren't fatsias terrific plants? I can't imagine having a dark, shady garden around here without it. I've already bought and planted two in my new beds, and may get more as the layout continues to evolve. Which variegated osmanthus do you have? My usual go-to favorite one is 'Goshiki,' which is gorgeous in light to moderate shade, but loses a lot of its color in heavy shade. Maybe other variegated varieties are better-suited to these conditions. What kind of acanthus are you growing? I like acanthus, but I don't really think of them as plants for dense shade. But I don't have a lot of experience with them, and I haven't really experimented with them very much.

You're also exactly right about competition from tree roots being as big a problem as the shade itself. And I too have faced the catch-22 of the situation where each and every thing that we as gardeners do to provide good conditions for the roots of the plants we plant (soil amendments, fertilizer, supplemental watering, etc.) also end up promoting the roots of nearby trees to invade the hole and compete with your new plant. Some trees seem to be particularly bad (magnolias, river birches, and the worst: red maples), but most trees pose this problem more or less. It's a conundrum that I've never solved if you have any tips about how to cope with that paradox, I'd love to hear it. Nonetheless, I'm a big fan of edgeworthias, too, and in fact I bought one the other day for the new bed. Hopefully I can find a spot for it where it'll hold its own.

Anyway, thanks again for all the help. I've begun acquiring some plants, but I continue to add to my list of others to consider for inclusion. In a lot of cases, I think the thing to do is just to find which plants will work there through some trial and error. But if anybody has any more suggestions or tips, please keep 'em coming. I really appreciate it.

    Bookmark   February 27, 2009 at 11:03PM
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My Hollyleaf Tea Olives are indeed Goshiki. They have stayed very yellow in the shade of tall pines, Car. Laurel Cherry and Maple. The Acanthus was only labeled as such so don't know the variety. I got them at a small nursery in Greenwood, SC, where my son lives. Sounds like you know a lot more about plants than I do. Can't remember if you said you had any of the variegated Cast Iron Plants. They are pretty and do well in shade as do Solomon's Seal.

    Bookmark   March 1, 2009 at 3:51PM
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I'm sure you already know about hostas, mine do fine in 100% shade.

    Bookmark   March 14, 2009 at 11:24AM
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If you're worried about tree roots taking advantage of your amended soil, try planting your smaller and/or more delicate items in sunken containers. For instance, buy several children's play buckets at a dollar store and drill drainage holes in the bottom; fill with a bit of gravel to help drainage. Dig holes large enough to completely fit the bucket, and then fill the bucket with your amended soil and plant as normal. Also helpful for plants that spread via suckers or rhizomes.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2009 at 12:53PM
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Good luck finding Danae racemosa. I posted on the Plant Exchange forum looking for one, but got not one posting to the thread. I found two places on the internet for one, but both are incredibly expensive for a very small plant, and both are more than a day's drive away from my home. Other than that, I've found no Danae racemosa (Alexandrian laurel, Poet's laurel). If you find one affordable, please post and let us know where it is. I'll trade multiple plants for just one Danae racemosa.

    Bookmark   March 26, 2009 at 12:22AM
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I saw Danae racemosa in Niche Gardens's catalog (this year's edition).

    Bookmark   March 26, 2009 at 8:56PM
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