Design

New Hardy Shade Plants to Grow Instead of the Usual Suspects

These 9 lesser-known plants are super hardy, need little care, and have undeniable interest

Fine Gardening – Issue 210
uncommon shade plants

In these socially divisive times, one should not publicly draw comparisons of the character traits between subsets of life around us. But in this instance, as I am older and have more insurance, I will do just that. 

Meadow plants are wonderful. They luxuriate themselves in full sun and in deep rich soil, deciding when in the calendar year it will be to their advantage to put forth the effort to blossom. There is little above them, and (only) feet of opulent topsoil beneath them, to regulate their annual cycle. Desert plants, too, are marvelously adapted things, soaking in the rays while snoozing for years or decades, until a splatter of rain snaps them awake to get on with the process of procreation. I find both of these plant subdivisions hot, but they’re really just overly tanned glory hounds. 

My sincerest respect goes to the woodlanders. Far from being dark characters, they are an honest, hardworking lot that, annually, are ­offered a succinct flicker of time to awaken, freshen themselves, show their charms, cast away offspring, and then fade into a long and deep slumber before performing the dance all over again the following spring. You have to love them—or at the very least give them a good dose of respect. In my home state of Washington, in the historically (albeit changing) cool and sympathetic climate of the western slope of the Cascades, a certain contingency of lesser-known hardy shade plants has earned my utmost admiration. On this list you will not find hostas or astilbes—nor will you find all natives or strictly Asian species. These shade favorites cross all boundaries, speak in different accents, and are accommodating of the various climates across North America. Let me tell you a thing—or four.

See more: Dan’s Tips for Growing in the Shade


An unappetizing name for an unmatched cerulean beauty

Blue liverleaf (Hepatica transsilvanica)
Photo: millettephotomedia.com

Name: Blue liverleaf (Hepatica transsilvanica)

Zones: 4b–7

Size: 6 to 8 inches tall and wide

Conditions: Partial shade; rich soil

Native range: Eastern Europe

Hardy primrose (Primula kisoana, Zones 4–8)
Try blue liverleaf along with (or in place of) hardy primrose (Primula kisoana, Zones 4–8). Photo: Michelle Gervais

Blue liverleaf is an excellent companion to several of the other plants featured in this article. It is perhaps one of the undeservingly least cultivated species of Hepatica in North America. Unlike the charming but diminutive clumping species in the genus, blue liverleaf has a stoloniferous growth habit, with endearingly blue flowers that appear for a lengthy amount of time in early spring. Blue liverleaf tolerates a range of conditions but is best in humus-rich soil, and it is entirely drought tolerant once established. It provides the same polished refinement of hardy primrose, but without the rambunctious, colonizing nature. ‘Elison Spence’, one of the most regularly offered cultivars, is a richly hued, royal-blue option with semi-double flowers. If you see it, buy it.

 

Fee-fi-fo-fum—this stunner has leaves bigger than a giant’s thumb

Astilboides (Astilboides tabularis)
Photo: Jennifer Benner

Name: Astilboides (Astilboides tabularis)

Zones: 3–9

Size: 3 to 4 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide

Conditions: Partial to full shade; moist, humusy soil

Native range: Northern China

‘Guacamole’ hosta (Hosta ‘Guacamole’, Zones 3–9)
Try Astilboides along with (or in place of) ‘Guacamole’ hosta (Hosta ‘Guacamole’, Zones 3–9). Photo: Michelle Gervais

Boldness of leaf, height variation, and textural distinction are essential for a well-composed planting, and no other hardy shade perennial does this better than Astilboides. It hails from the brutal climate of Northeast China and Manchuria, which translates to garden-worthiness in Alaska through Minnesota to Maine. Closely allied to the genus Rodgersia, it produces, with adequate richness of soil, astoundingly large rounded leaves to 2½ feet across on petioles that reach 3 feet tall. In midsummer it adds brief floral interest with the appearance of handsome, white flower clusters that rise above the foliage. But this species really is all about those leaves delivered from a polite, slowly increasing clump. This is a ridiculously durable plant for cooler zones. And if you have grown weary of keeping the mollusks from riddling your hosta foliage, consider replacing or interplanting this entirely arresting, but not-so-delicious, plant instead.

 

Here today, gone tomorrow, but its long-lasting charm makes it worth planting

Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides syn. Anemonella thalictroides)
Photo: Nancy J. Ondra

Name: Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides syn. Anemonella thalictroides)

Zones: 4–8

Size: 6 to 8 inches tall and wide

Conditions: Partial to full shade; average, well-drained soil 

Native range: Eastern North America

Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa, Zones 4–8)
Try rue anemone along with (or in place of) wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa, Zones 4–8). Photo: gapphotos.com/Jonathan Buckley

Rue anemone is a transient charmer much in the same way that Brad Pitt’s character is in Thelma and Louise. It’s here one moment, oogling the vulnerable, and then gone with the money the next. It is native to a wide swath of the country and has delicate, low-growing foliage. Don’t confuse it with wood anemone; this ephemeral doesn’t possess the same excessive vigor. Sweet, single white-pink flowers rise slightly above the leaves of rue anemone for a period in early spring.

Fortunately, there are forms with double flowers (such as ‘Oscar Schoff’ and ‘Cameo’) that prolong the floral show. Those roselike blooms can last hours longer than those of the single-flowered parent. ‘Green Hurricane’ is, as the name implies, a flower with green tepals, doubled in this instance. Regardless of variety, all rue anemones exude sincerity and efficiency—like a winter funeral held in northern Michigan. I would not be without them in my garden, however brief their tenure.

 

Don’t let previous lady’s-slipper failures deter you from trying this heartier option

Formosan lady’s slipper (Cypripedium formosanum)
Photo: millettephotomedia.com

Name: Formosan lady’s slipper (Cypripedium formosanum)

Zones: 5–9

Size: 6 inches tall and 6 to 8 inches wide 

Conditions: Partial shade; well-drained, alkaline soil

Native range: Taiwan

Pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule, Zones 3–7)
Try Formosan lady’s slipper along with (or in place of) pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule, Zones 3–7). Photo: Danielle Sherry

This is hands down the easiest of the terrestrial lady’s slippers to grow. If you have tried, and failed with, any of the lovely native species within this genus, you will be richly rewarded by the vigor of Formosan lady’s slipper. In terms of wow-power, nothing in the shaded garden will knock you over more than this queen of the hardy orchids. The species is both hardy and hearty, quickly creating colonies of pleated leaves that many would consider reason enough to grow it. But wait, there’s more. In midspring, each crown presents “slippers” of the palest pink. One of the most visited sites at Heronswood botanical garden is where hundreds of flowers erupt from a single colony each spring. This colony, growing in well-draining yet not particularly good soil, started with only a single crown three decades ago. Since then, it has grown considerably, with numerous divisions co-opted over the years. Formosan lady’s slipper can be grown across much of North America, with the exception of the dry Southeast and Mountain West states, as it resents an arid climate.

 

Try some tropical flair in more-temperate zones

‘Heron’s Pirouette’ hardy begonia (Begonia grandis ‘Heron’s Pirouette’)
Photo: courtesy of Sue Milliken/Far Reaches Farm

Name: ‘Heron’s Pirouette’ hardy begonia (Begonia grandis ‘Heron’s Pirouette’)

Zones: 5–9

Size: 3 feet tall and wide

Conditions: Partial to full shade; moist, well-drained soil

Native range: China

▾ Blue hardy impatiens (Impatiens arguta, Zones 6b–9)
Try ‘Heron’s Pirouette’ hardy begonia along with (or in place of) blue hardy impatiens (Impatiens arguta, Zones 6b–9). Photo: courtesy of Plant Delights Nursery

This is a representative of a genus I have found to be indispensable in a well-appointed shade garden. Begonias hailing from temperate areas of Asia have been unfairly tarnished with the reputation of tenderness. I believe many more should be trialed by gardeners across North America to assess their true overall hardiness, even if they’ll need to be mulched for extra insulation before winter commences. One that has long shown extreme hardiness is the late-blossoming Begonia grandis, a native throughout much of Asia. It presents the recognizable triangular-shaped foliage of a tropical begonia species, rising on handsome ruby stems to 2 feet tall. In late summer and early autumn, terminal racemes of pink flowers are produced over a long period.

‘Heron’s Pirouette’ is a selection made at Heronswood botanical garden many years ago from seed I returned with from China in 1998. With long pendulous sprays of richly hued flowers up to 8 inches in length, it is worthy of growing, especially in cooler climates where begonias would be a novelty. There’s a caveat: Bulbils form at the leaf axils of this species and, if too content, can overpopulate a garden. This is generally not a problem, as it can be with many of the hardy impatiens. However, if you notice overzealous procreation, you can remove and bag the stems filled with offspring in late summer before they mature and drop.

 

A tough and distinctive evergreen ground cover

Trifoliate bittercress (Cardamine trifolia)
Photo: gapphotos.com/Martin Hughes-Jones

Name: Trifoliate bittercress (Cardamine trifolia)

Zones: 4b–9

Size: 6 inches tall and 8 to 12 inches wide 

Conditions: Partial to full shade; average, well-drained soil

Native range: Central and southern Europe

Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum, Zones 4–8)
Try trifoliate bittercress along with (or in place of) sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum, Zones 4–8). Photo: gapphotos.com/Gary Smith

Though I have been partial to trifoliate bittercress for decades and insist that people use it more frequently as an evergreen ground. cover, I still find it to be vastly ignored. Like many of our own families, the genus has bad cousins, including the notorious annual shotweed (C. hirsuta), though the amazing traits of trifoliate bittercress put this pair miles apart. With the good cousin, you can expect slowly increasing colonies of low, dark green foliage, which ultimately creates a weed-suppressing carpet. This plant tolerates a wide range of conditions, including dry shade and drought. In early spring, clean white flowers rise 5 inches above the mass. Trifoliate bittercress also commendably self-cleans after flowering. Seedlings are seldom encountered. Hailing from the mountains of eastern Europe, this charmer tolerates extreme cold during the winter months, with its foliage taking on purple tints during the off-season. Consider it instead of sweet woodruff, although it will not possess a discernible fragrance.

 

Green flowers may not sound alluring, but these most certainly are

Hacquetia (Hacquetia epipactis syn. Sanicula epipactis)
Photo: millettephotomedia.com

Name: Hacquetia (Hacquetia epipactis syn. Sanicula epipactis)

Zones: 5–7

Size: 3 to 6 inches tall and up to 12 inches wide

Conditions: Partial to full shade; moist, gritty, well-drained soil

Native range: Eastern Europe

Masterwort (Astrantia major and cvs., Zones 4–7)
Try hacquetia along with (or in place of) masterwort (Astrantia major and cvs., Zones 4–7). Photo: Danielle Sherry

Throughout the Baltic States you’ll find hacquetia growing natively with trifoliate bittercress. It’s a close relative of the better-known masterwort (Astrantia major), a relationship recognizable only by midsummer. In the earliest weeks of spring, brilliant chartreuse-bracted umbels of flowers seemingly ooze from the ground and present themselves for a long period. When temperatures rise, these jewel-encrusted tufts transition to leafy mounds of lobed foliage that do indeed resemble those of its cousin. Hacquetia tolerates dry shade when fully established. A truly enviable, though somewhat difficult to find, variegated form (H. epipactis ‘Thpr’) does exist and is worth seeking out. Not only is the foliage neatly outlined with creamy white at the margins, but so too are the normally green bracts that surround the clusters of electric yellow gold flowers. Regardless of which variety you plant, you’ll be rewarded with ground-hugging stars of intense yellow each year.

 

This big boy has out-of-this-world mottled foliage

Delavay’s mayapple (Podophyllum delavayi)
Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum, Zones 3–8). Photo: millettephotomedia.com

Name: Delavay’s mayapple (Podophyllum delavayi)

Zones: 5–9

Size: 2 feet tall and wide

Conditions: Partial to full shade; rich, moist soil

Native range: China

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum, Zones 3–8)
Try Delavay’s mayapple along with (or in place of) mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum, Zones 3–8). Photo: Lynn Felici-Gallant

Of the most endearing eastern U.S. wildflowers is mayapple, though it colonizes outrageously in nature. Delavay’s mayapple, a closely related species, is far less aggressive in a garden setting, which could be seen as a good thing, but it is so startlingly beautiful that I often wish it were a bit more thuggish. It hails from western China, and I believe it to be one of the best hardy perennials introduced from that country in a century. Purple-suffused or -mottled, iridescent and satiny-textured foliage emerges in spring, with each leaf expanding to nearly a foot across. Secluded beneath its leaves in spring are deeply clefted bells of red, each producing a disagreeable though ephemeral odor. The species is pollinated by flies, though this undesirable trait should never be used as a disinvitation. After all, its foliage is what will ultimately seduce any who cultivate it. Delavay’s mayapple is also tough as nails within its hardiness zones.

 

With a midsummer bloom time, this refined woodlander is a rarity

False anemone (Anemonopsis macrophylla)
Photo: millettephotomedia.com

Name: False anemone (Anemonopsis macrophylla)

Zones: 4–8b

Size: 2 to 3 feet tall and 1½ feet wide 

Conditions: Full shade; moist soil

Native range: Japan

False anemone (Anemonopsis macrophylla)
Try false anemone along with (or in place of) white columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Alba’, Zones 3–8). Photo: gapphotos.com/Paul Debois

Those who confuse rue anemone (above) with the present candidate can be forgiven. Although the two are microns away in name, they are miles apart in nativity and effect. False anemone is a monotypic species—it’s the sole representative in the genus—that hails from the botanically opulent mountains of Japan. Sorry, it’s not native, yet I find our native pollinators nonplussed that they are dining on fusion cuisine. From a clumping mound of deeply dissected greenery arise stems up to 2 feet tall that carry nodding, waxy bells of the softest lavender. This plant is an especially welcome addition to the shade garden due to its tardiness to blossom, not presenting its fullest show until late July and early August when little else is blooming. A pure white-flowered form is found in the shade infrequently, and even dearer is a fully double cultivar. False anemone is quite unlike any other woodlander you might encounter, though it might remind you of a pale-colored columbine.


Daniel Hinkley is a plant explorer, nurseryman, lecturer, and author. His most recent book, Windcliff: A Story of People, Plants, and Gardens, chronicles the evolution of his home landscape.

| Sources |

The following mail-order sellers offer many of the plants featured here.

View Comments

Comments

Log in or create an account to post a comment.

Related Articles

The Latest

Shop the Store

View All Products