Nothing has taught me more about gardening than actual work in the garden. Among the lessons learned is that there should be no lack of color in the shade. Why have just foliage and texture when you can also have colorful blooms? Few are aware that many colorful perennials need some degree of shade. The following plants are backbone perennials that, year in and year out, brighten low-light spots with their colors.
Nothing brightens low-light spots like oxslip and cowslip primroses
For bright accents, look to white corydalis
Many lilies enjoy a little shade
Zones: 3 to 8
Size: 4 or more feet tall and 18 inches wide
Conditions: Bright shade; well-drained soil
Lilies are perceived as large-flowering, sun-loving plants, but there are many that enjoy a little shade. I think that the species with numerous bell-shaped blooms offer a more casual appearance than those featuring large showy blossoms.
The top three on my list are Japanese lily (Lilium speciosum and cvs., Zones 5–7, pictured) in white and carmine red, martagon lily (L. martagon and cvs., Zones 3–7) in any of its forms, and Canada lily (L. canadense and cvs., Zones 3–8) in its color variations.
Japanese lily also happens to be a butterfly magnet.
Learn to identify the types of shade
Simply put, shade is created when matter interrupts light’s path. In the garden, shade can be either bright, open, or heavy, and there are various plants that thrive under one or more of these conditions. To understand the three types of shade, pretend you’re standing under a mature tree on a clear day, observing how its limbs and leaves filter sunlight headed for the ground:
Heavy Shade is to the north of the tree, where there will always be shade. It is a large portion of even light where mosses grow best.
Open Shade is to the east of the tree, where the rising sun gently graces the garden.
Bright Shade is on the southern and westerly sides, where the longest and most intense amounts of sunlight come through. This is the warmest type of shade.
Crested iris is among the few irises that thrive in shade
Indian pink is an explosion of color
Cobra lilies provide striking patterns
Zones: 4 to 9
Size: 1 to 3 feet tall and wide
Conditions: Open shade; moist, well-drained soil
The many varieties of cobra lily add colorful stems and berry clusters to the shade. There are more than 150 species around the world, including two that are native to the eastern United States: Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum, Zones 4–9, pictured) and green dragon (A. dracontium, Zones 4–9). Judicious selection among these plants for succession of blooms guarantees a peak extending from April through July.
Added bonuses are deer resistance and colorful seed heads, which last into November. Among my favorites is Farges’s cobra lily (A. fargesii, Zones 5–8), for its pin-striped spathe, giant foliage, and colorful orange-red seed clusters.
Epimedium has flowers and foliage that glow
Despite heat and humidity, tall larkspur is dependable
Gardeners act like deer in the headlights when they see a hybrid double-flowered larkspur, which gets more attention than the quieter-performing tall larkspur. Hybrids, however, often fail in heat and humidity, while native tall larkspur thrives. Spurred lavender blooms at the top of deep green foliage reach up high without the help of stakes. Tall larkspur blooms from summer through fall if deadheaded.
Creeping wintergreen is a year-round source of interest
This small native shrub is a wonderful evergreen ground cover. The leatherlike leaves of creeping wintergreen look as though they’ve been waxed and polished. The foliage is not harmed by insects, hard freezes, or snow. New growth tips are strawberry red and brown, and white urn-shaped blooms appear in early summer. Scarlet red berries decorate the plant all through winter. Just add snow or frost and you have a Currier and Ives postcard.
Count on toad lily for colorful flowers from summer to frost
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