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Perennials for Shady Locations

Sharon S. Bale, Richard E. Durham, Robert L. Geneve, and Robert G. Anderson

A shaded yard is never more welcome than on a hot summer day. However, while you may appreciate the pleasant temperatures shade provides, you may assume you cannot have a colorful garden if your yard does not receive much sunlight. Not true; a group of wonderful shrubs and flowers thrives in shade. In fact, they require shade to best display their ornamental characteristics. You can create a pleasing and rewarding garden of perennials, annuals, ground covers, and shrubs—a bonus to the good fortune of having trees and lots of shade. And be assured that your neighbors who don't have large trees wish they could have the instant comfort of shade.

This publication deals solely with perennial plants for shady locations. Shade can be described as being full, half, partial, light, heavy, filtered, dappled, and so on. Each yard is unique when it comes to the type of shade provided by trees, buildings, decks, lathwork, fences, walls, or stairways. The best perennials for your shaded yard depend on your preferences in color, texture, and plant heights. Identifying plants that have the qualities to perform well under various degrees of shading can be a rewarding, yet sometimes challenging, experience. Experiment with your plants and feel free to move them to different locations around the yard, if necessary.

To learn more about shade gardening, visit your local public library or bookstore. Garden catalogs are also excellent sources of information, especially for that unique plant you would like to know more about. The professionals at a nursery or garden center will also have a lot of helpful information on selecting the right plants for your shaded yard. The chart beginning on page 3 lists perennials that prefer a shady location and provides a good start for selecting the right plants to add to your pleasant, cool, shaded yard.

Pest Management in Perennial Flower Gardens

You will notice that most of the plants listed in this publication are designated as having few pests. However, overall health of the perennial flower garden can drastically affect the need for pest control. A very practical and effective approach to pest control involves a process known as integrated pest management, or IPM. The IPM approach is multifaceted and much broader than simply applying pesticides when problem organisms are present.

One of the main tenets of IPM is to select plants with natural pest resistance such as many of the species and cultivars listed in this publication. But plants should also be selected based on the environment in which they will grow, such as sunny versus shady conditions, wet versus dry sites, or acid versus alkaline soils. These environmental recommendations are often given in the Performance section of the plant descriptions. Placing a plant in an improper site will result in poor plant growth that often invites pest problems down the road.

Good cultural practices, another important part of IPM, include choosing the right plant for a particular site, preparing the planting site, installing the plant properly, and maintaining the plant with correct practices involving irrigation, fertilization, mulching, sanitation, and division or separation of overgrown plants.

Proper mulching and sanitation yield many benefits. Organic mulches applied regularly to the soil promote the growth of beneficial soil organisms, regulate soil temperature, conserve soil moisture, and reduce competition by weeds. Regularly removing dead or dying plant material and cleaning up the garden in fall and spring will greatly reduce the number of insects and diseases that are present and may potentially overwinter in the landscape. When these activities are carried out correctly, the perennial flower garden will rarely need treatment with pesticides.

When pest problems do arise, the issue can often be resolved through non-chemical means, or through the use of chemicals or biological control agents that are very specific to the targeted pest and thus likely to interfere with the natural ecology of the perennial garden. Your county Extension agent is often able to help with diagnosis of the problem and can prescribe a treatment to remedy the pest situation.

Explanation of Terms

Plant names—The scientific and common names of selected perennials are listed in the following chart. The chart lists the scientific names alphabetically for ease in finding a particular plant.

The scientific name (genus and species) is important because gardeners seeking information about a specific plant will need this name for most reference books. In some cases, scientific names have changed; an effort has been made to list the new scientific name with the older, more familiar scientific name. Plant names are based on those used in Herbaceous Perennial Plants by Alan M. Armitage. Scientific names are hard to learn but make it easier for you to find information in books and catalogs on perennials.

Typical common names are listed as well, but these names can vary from region to region and be confusing.

A specific cultivar (cultivated variety) is often listed with the scientific name or mentioned in the comments. This indicates that the cultivar is superior to the "wild-type" genus and species. Plant breeders working on perennial flowers are producing more and more choices, and many of them are worth the extra expense to purchase or the extra time to find. If your favorite cultivar is not listed, be assured it was not left out intentionally. It is nearly impossible to keep up with all the good cultivars. Contact your county Extension agent about favorite plants that have proven their worth to you.

Color—Most perennials are available in a narrow range of colors.

Bloom season—The bloom season listed is the typical time to expect the perennials to flower. Weather conditions affect the exact date of bloom. Therefore, a comment relative to season of bloom is more appropriate than giving specific months.

Diseases and insects—Most of the perennials listed have no serious disease or insect pests. The plants generally tolerate pest problems and require no chemical treatment. The age-old practices of garden cleanup and sanitation are important in pest management.

Performance—This category provides tips on plant performance and general maintenance that encourages plant vigor. Concerns about invasiveness and cultural problems are also listed here.

Propagation—Many perennials can be produced from seed but may require several years before they are mature enough to bloom. Propagation of perennials from seed is slow, and a gardener may lose patience and/or plants before perennials mature to flower production.

Division is a common method of producing perennials. There may be specific times during the season when division is most successful for some plants, while others can be divided anytime. A general rule is, "If the plant blooms in the spring, divide it after bloom or in the fall. If the plant blooms in the fall, divide it in the spring."

Cuttings of perennials may root easily and produce large numbers of small plants in a short time. Appropriate growing media and a typical cutting propagation environment are all that is required. Although cutting production may be simple, the small plants may require several years before blooms are produced.

Comments—This section contains specific information about the species or hybrids. Cultivar names may be listed as well as uses of the plant. Short life expectancy of certain plants is mentioned here, also.

Name Flower Color Height Season Pests Uses Propagation Performance/Comments
Acanthus mollis

Common Bear's Breeches

purple, white 3' late spring few border root cuttings, division Performance: Tolerates full sun but best in partial shade. Evergreen foliage may become unsightly in winter.

Comments: Fifth-century Greek Corinthian columns bear the design of sculptured leaves of Acanthus. Wavy, heart-shaped leaves have no spines. Flowers are sometimes injured by winter weather.

Aconitum napellus


blue 3-4' late summer few border, cut division in fall, seed Performance: Prefers a moist soil but not soil that stays wet. Normally thought of as a full-sun plant, but seems to do better in partial shade in Kentucky.

Comments: All parts of the plant are poisonous. The roots are particularly toxic; therefore, the plant should never be grown near the vegetable garden. Seed is difficult to germinate.

Alchemilla mollis

Lady's Mantle

yellowish 8-10" early summer few border, cut seed, division in spring or fall Performance: Prefers a moist, shady area but tolerates some sun. In a sunny location, the leaves appear brown or burned by late summer.

Comments: Drops of dew or raindrops tend to collect on the leaves and can sometimes promote disease problems. Sometimes sold as A. vulgaris.

Aquilegia x hybrida


white, yellow, red, pink 1-2' early summer leaf miner border, cut seed Performance: Prefers partial shade but tolerates a wide range of conditions. Tends to be a short-lived perennial but often self sows.

Comments: There are about 60 known columbine species. Named cultivars and species are generally easy to propagate from seed.

Arum italicum

Italian Arum

white 12-20" late spring, good all-season leaf pattern, good fall fruit few border division in fall, seed Performance: Prefers a rich, moist soil. The foliage appears in late fall and persists through the winter, adding interest. The flowers appear in late spring and, after bloom, stalks of striking red berries develop.

Comments: Arums are related to calla lilies. 'Pictum' is the hardiest of arums.

Aruncus dioicus

Goat's Beard

cream 4-6' early summer few border division, seed Performance: Must have a moist location. In cooler areas it can be grown in full sun. Requires a great deal of space in the garden. Division may be difficult. Seeds require a cold stratification period for germination.

Comments: 'Kneiffii' is 3' tall. Male and female blooms are on separate plants. Male blooms are more upright and showier. Resembles a giant astilbe.

Asarum europaeum

European Ginger

purple, brown inconspicuous 4-6" spring, all-season foliage few ground cover division in spring Performance: Must have a moist location. Grown for the foliage, which is evergreen.

Comments: A. shuttleworthii 'Calaway' has mottled evergreen foliage and may tolerate the heat more but is not as winterhardy as A. europaeum. Some Asarums are listed as Hexastylis.

Astilbe x arendsii

Astilbe, False Spirea

pink, white, red, lavender 2-3' late spring, summer mites border, cut, dried division in spring Performance: Tolerates full sun but does best in at least partial shade and a moist location. Does not tolerate poor, dry, alkaline, or soggy soils.

Comments: Many cultivars are available. Bloom time depends on the cultivar or species. Foliage color ranges from green to bronze. The flower spikes can be dried.

Related species: A. x rosea 'Peach Blossom', also an excellent choice.

Astilbe chinensis 'Pumila'

Dwarf Chinese Astilbe

pink-purple 12-15" late summer few border, cut, edging division in spring or fall, seed Performance: Prefers a moist soil rich in organic matter. More tolerant of dry soil than A. x arendsii.

Comments: Flowers last several weeks. Densely stoloniferous, making it a first-rate edging plant.

Astilbe taquetti 'Superba'

Fall Astilbe

magenta 3-4' late summer few border, cut division in spring or fall Performance: Heat- and drought-tolerant but less so than A. chinensis 'Pumila'. Flowers more dense than those of A. x arendsii hybrids.

Comments: Flowers last several weeks. Flowering may continue into August.

Begonia grandis

Hardy Begonia

pink 18-24" summer few border bulbils Performance: Needs a rich, moist soil. The tuberous roots may be killed during severe winters but this is generally not a problem since the plants readily propagate from bulbils. Bulbils form in the leaf axils and then drop to the ground. Plants emerge from these in the spring and can be left or transplanted to other parts of the garden.

Comments: Pink ovaries of female flowers remain attractive long after flowers are spent. Large, angel-wing leaves are especially attractive when lit from behind to highlight red veining. Also listed as B. evansiana.

Bletilla striata

Hyacinth Bletilla

purple 8-10" spring few border division Performance: This terrestrial orchid is very suitable for Kentucky gardens.

Comments: Bulbous roots should be planted no more than 2" deep. White and bicolor forms are also available.

Bergenia cordifolia

Bergenia, Pigsqueak

pink, red 1-2' spring, all-season foliage few border, ground cover division in spring, seed Performance: Tolerates sun. Prefers a moist soil but tolerates a wide range of conditions. Grown for the effect of the glossy evergreen foliage.

Comments: During the winter, the foliage becomes red or bronze. Many cultivars are available.

Brunnera macrophylla

Heartleaf Brunnera

blue 12-20" flowers in spring, all-season foliage few border, ground cover root cuttings, seed Performance: Shade and consistent moisture are needed for vigorous growth.

Comments: Blue flowers held above small leaves appear in the spring, but leaves continue to enlarge.

Ceratostigma plumbaginoides

Plumbago, Leadwort

blue 8-12" summer, fall few border, ground cover division in spring, cuttings, seed Performance: Tolerates sun. Must have a well-drained location. Does not tolerate soggy conditions. Leaves appear late in the spring.

Comments: Foliage turns bronze in the fall.

Chelone glabra

White Turtlehead

white 2-3' summer few border division in spring or fall, cuttings Performance: Also does well in full sun and constantly moist areas.

Comments: Flowers contrast nicely with foliage.

Chelone lyonii

Pink Turtlehead

rose-pink 2-3' summer few border division in spring or fall, cuttings Performance: Tolerates morning sun and alkaline soils.

Comments: Flowers persist for about 4 weeks in summer.

Cimicifuga racemosa

Snakeroot, Cohosh

white 3-8' summer few border division in spring or fall, seed Performance: Tolerates full sun but needs a rich, moist location. Has a deep root system and does not divide well.

Comments: Tall, white spire blooms last several weeks.

Convallaria majalis


white, pink 5-10" late spring few ground cover, cut division after flowering, pips (shoots that appear on the rhizomes) Performance: Must have a moist location. The foliage will not last throughout the season in a dry area.

Comments: Blooms are very fragrant and should be cut and enjoyed indoors. Several cultivars are available.

Dicentra eximia

Fringed Bleeding Heart

pink 12-18" summer aphids border, cut division in spring, seed Performance: D. eximia blooms for an extended period of time if grown in a moist location. Does not tolerate wet soils in winter.

Comments: With the correct growing conditions, this plant will bloom throughout most of the summer. Several cultivars are available.

Dicentra spectabilis

Common Bleeding Heart

pink, white 2-3' early summer stem rot, wilt border, cut division in spring or fall, seed, cuttings in spring Performance: Requires a fertile soil high in organic matter. The foliage may die back after flowering. Seed must be sown in fall or stratified for best germination.

Comments: D. eximia is considered the better full-sun plant, but does not make the same display in shade. 'Alba' has white flowers but is not as vigorous as the species.

Dodecatheon meadia

Common Shooting Star

white, pink, lavender, purple 8-18" late spring few border, rock garden division in fall Performance: Needs a well-drained, moist soil. Appears in the spring, blooms, and then goes dormant for the summer.

Comments: Since the foliage does not last through the summer, other plants should be planted to fill the area through the rest of the season.

Doronicum caucasicum

Leopard's Bane

yellow 1-2' early summer few border, cut division, seed Performance: Can be grown in full sun but does best in partial shade. The foliage declines throughout the summer or may disappear entirely after bloom. This is not a long-lived perennial.

Comments: Several cultivars are available.

Epimedium sp.

Barrenwort, Bishop's Cap

yellow, red, white 8-12" early spring few ground cover division Performance: Foliage on very thin petioles waves in the wind; semi-evergreen. Cut to ground in early spring.

Comments: By summer's end, plants may look ragged.

Galium odoratum

Sweet Woodruff

white 4-8" late spring few ground cover, herb division Performance: Prefers a moist soil. Does not bloom as well in deep shade.

Comments: Also used as a fragrance herb. The foliage smells like newly mown hay when crushed or dried. Also listed as Asperula odorata.

Geranium sanguineum

Cranesbill geranium

magenta 8-12" spring few filler, border division Performance: Foliage is deeply lobed. Well-drained soil required. Considered low maintenance. Protect from late afternoon sun; prefers morning sun.

Comments: G. sanguineum var. striatum 'lancastriense' has soft pink flowers with crimson veins. It is sometimes sold as 'Prostratum' and is a low, spreading cultivar (6-8" tall). It is often described as the best of the lot.

Geranium sp.

Cranesbill geranium

white, pink, lilac, blue 6-15" spring few filler, edging, border division Performance: Light shade from afternoon sun suits this plant. Well-drained soil required.

Comments: G. x cantabrigiense 'Biokovo' (white to pale pink); G. dalmaticum (light pink); G. endressii 'Wargrave Pink' (warm pink); G. x himalayense 'Johnson's Blue' (bluish); G. macrorrhizum 'Ingwerson's Variety' (soft pink, this species is the native geranium found in Kentucky). These cultivars have performed well in full sun but equally well when protected from the hot, late afternoon sun. At least morning sun is a requirement for good performance, and soil must drain well.

Helleborus orientalis

Lenten Rose

white, purple 12-15" early spring few border division, seed Performance: The foliage is evergreen. Easy to establish and should increase easily. Fertilizing in the spring as the new leaves emerge promotes vigorous growth.

Comments: This is the easiest species to grow, requiring shade and occasional water.

Helleborus niger

Christmas Rose

white to purple 12-18" winter, early spring few border seed Performance: Needs consistent moisture, shade, and slightly basic soils.

Comments: One of the earliest perennials to flower. Not as adaptable as the Lenten Rose.

Heuchera sanguinea

Coral Bells

red, pink, white 8-18" spring, summer few border, ground cover division, seed Performance: Does fine in full sun but can also be used in partial shade. Likes a moist, well-drained soil. Divide every 3-4 years.

Comments: Several cultivars and species are available. H. micrantha diversifolia 'Palace Purple' is grown for the effect of the purple foliage rather than the blooms.

Heucherella (intergenetic hybrid)

Foamy Bells

pink 12-16" spring few border, ground cover division Performance: Requires a moist location. May be evergreen.

Comments: An intergenetic cross between a Heuchera hybrid and Tiarella cordifolia. New and interesting cultivars are becoming more readily available.

Hosta (species, hybrids)

Plantain Lily, Hosta, Funkia

white, lavender 8-36" spring, summer slugs border, cut division Performance: Considered a low-maintenance perennial for a shade or semi-shade location. Grown mainly for the effect of the foliage.

Comments: There are so many species and cultivars available, choosing just one is difficult. Available in a variety of leaf shapes and color combinations. Excellent plants for the garden.

Liriope muscari

Blue Lily-turf

lilac 12-18" late summer few ground cover division, seed, tissue culture Performance: Not particular concerning soils, if drainage is adequate. Tolerates heavy shade but takes longer to spread.

Comments: Plantings grown mainly for the turf-like foliage. May be mowed to the ground in late winter to eliminate old foliage and allow a new flush of growth in spring.

Lobelia cardinalis

Cardinal Flower

red 2-4' late summer, fall few border, cut division, seed Performance: Does best in a moist location. Is naturalized along streams.

Comments: A native plant in Kentucky. Attracts hummingbirds.

Lobelia siphilitica

Big Blue Lobelia

blue 2-3' late summer, fall few naturalized division every 2-3 years Performance: Prefers moist soil and partial shade but tolerates full sun.

Comments: Flowers persist 3-4 weeks.

Lysimachia clethroides

Gooseneck Loosestrife

white 2-3' late summer few border division, seed, cuttings Performance: Prefers moist but not waterlogged soils and partial shade. Can be invasive.
Lysimachia punctata

Yellow Loosestrife

yellow 1-2' summer few border cuttings, seed, division Performance: Prefers moist, partial shade but tolerates full sun. Can be invasive.
Mertensia virginica

Virginia Bluebells

pink to blue 12-18" spring few border, naturalized division Performance: A moist location is best. Should not be planted in masses. The foliage dies back after flowering, leaving a "hole" in the garden. Interplanting with later perennials can solve this problem.

Comments: The flowers appear pink at first and then turn blue. It is a very attractive plant in the spring.

Myosotis sylvatica

Garden Forget-me-not

blue 12-18" spring mites, powdery mildew border, rock garden division, seed, cuttings Performance: Mainly blooms in the spring but produces sporadic bloom at other times. Prefers a moist soil. Not considered a long-lived perennial, but may self sow.

Comments: 'Alba'--white flowers; 'Victoria Rose'--pink flowers

Polemonium caeruleum

Jacob's Ladder

blue 18-24" summer few border division, seed Performance: Requires partial shade and a well-drained site.

Comments: Flowers persist for several weeks.

Polemonium reptans

Creeping Polemonium

light blue 8-18" spring few border division Performance: Grows well in partial shade and moist soils.

Comments: Excellent foliage all season.

Polygonatum biflorum

Solomon's Seal

white 2-4' spring few border division Performance: Tolerates a sunny location. Prefers a moist soil.

Comments: Although the flowers are not showy, the graceful arching foliage is an attractive addition to the garden.

Polygonatum odoratum 'Variegatum'

Fragrant Solomon's Seal

white-green 18-24" spring few border division of rootstock, seed Performance: Tolerates heavy shade. Grows well in shady, moist areas.

Comments: Leaves are soft green edged in creamy white. Flowers persist for 2-3 weeks and are fragrant.

Primula auricula

Auricula Primrose

yellow 2-8" spring few border division, stem cuttings, seed Performance: Requires consistently moist soil and partial shade.

Comments: Roots are shallow and need winter protection.

Primula denticulata

Drumstick Primrose

lilac, white 8-10" spring few border division, seed Performance: Moist, partially shaded areas best for optimum growth.

Comments: Roots need winter protection.

Pulmonaria sp.


blue, white, red, pink 10-14" early spring few border division Performance: Tolerates deeper shade than most perennials. Needs moist, rich soil. Summer drought can kill it.

Comments: P. angustifolia has bright blue flowers, very attractive in combination with the yellow color of daffodils and forsythia.

Thalictrum aquilegifolium

Columbine Meadow-rue

white, purple 3' late spring few border division, seed Performance: Partial shade, moist soil required.

Comments: Direct sun results in less vigorous plants and later flowering. Flowers for 2 weeks.

Thalictrum rochebrunianum

'Lavender Mist'

Yunnan Meadow-rue

lavender 5' summer few border, cut division, seed Performance: Partial shade, moist soil required.

Comments: Plants require support when flowering.

Tiarella cordifolia

Allegheny Foamflower

white 6-12" spring few border division, seed Performance: Requires moisture-retentive, highly organic soils in medium to heavy shade.

Comments: Excellent low-maintenance plant.

Tricyrtis hirta

Toad Lily

white/purple spots 2-3' late summer, fall few border division spring or fall, seed Performance: Prefers moist soil rich in organic matter. Will not be as tall in dry soil.

Comments: Seed requires stratification for best germination. The orchid-like flowers are not showy from a distance but are interesting when viewed at close range.

Viola cucullata

Marsh Blue Violet

violet 3-6" spring few border, ground cover division, seed Performance: Requires moist, shady areas. Invasive.
Viola labradorica

Labrador Violet

violet 1-4" spring few border, ground cover division, seed Performance: Requires shade, moisture. Invasive.

Armitage, Alan M. 1989. Herbaceous Perennial Plants: A Treatise on Their Identification, Culture and Garden Attributes. Varsity Press: Athens, GA.

Clause, Ruth Rogers, and Nicolas H. Ekstrom. 1989. Perennials for American Gardens. Random House: New York.

Harper, Pamela, and Frederick McGourty. 1985. Perennials: How to Select, Grow and Enjoy. HP Books, P.O. Box 5367, Tucson, AZ 85703.

Editors of Sunset Books. 1992. Perennials. Sunset Publishing Company, 80 Willow Rd., Menlo Park, CA 94025.

Phillips, Roger, and Martyn Rix. 1992. Perennials. Vol. I. Early Perennials. Random House, 201 East 50th St., New York, NY 10022.

Phillips, Roger, and Martyn Rix. 1992. Perennials. Vol. II. Late Perennials. Random House, 201 East 50th St., New York, NY 10022.


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