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Shady Deals – Unusual Plants for the Shade

Norma Evans

Gardeners are just beginning to appreciate the benefits of shade gardening. They become fans of shade when they realize less watering is required, there are fewer weeds, blooms last longer and the working environment is much more comfortable. And there are many, many interesting plants than can tolerate a little or a lot of shade. It probably helps that funkias were renamed hostas.

You will be convinced that the hybridizers are shade fans as well when you check out the many new, colourful Heucheras or coral bells on the market.. The blooms don’t count for much but the leaves are stunning. Gardeners thought that Palace Purple with its purple/wine leaves was absolutely marvelous. Now there is an almost black variety called Obsidian, apricot shades such as Peach Melba and Amber Waves, and a tiny variety called Petit Pearl Fairy. Maybe you would prefer Key Lime Pie. These plants are a "shoe-in" for partial shade.

The selection of different, grow-in-full-shade ferns revs up every year. Once the excitement and interest in the Japanese Painted Fern had died down, then a couple of relatives turn up. Ghost Fern is a paler version of the painted fern and a couple of attractive red stemmed varieties are being shown in the garden shops.

More green ferns are now available to liven up the deep shady areas. Maidenhair Ferns, spleenworts, Holly ferns and crested varieties and what are called congested types can be found in nurseries. A green conversation starter is Athyrium ‘Dre’s Dagger’. It is unusual, interesting and hardy. Folks planting in woodland areas may be surprised at what can be found in the way of interesting ferns. Do read the tags carefully as many "new" varieties are Zone 6 and may need extra winter protection. In addition, some may require acid soil. Not new but now more available is Autumn fern and a new cousin Brilliance fern.

Rodgersias do make a statement in the shade.. They are large, very tall plants that have creamy or pink blooms. The long-stalked leaves can be 24 to 30" across. They come from China and Japan, like a rich, moist soil and are hard to overlook in a woodland garden.

Brunneras, known as perennial forget-me-not, are a great shade plant that deserves a spot in a woodland garden. Jack Frost is a new and very popular variety with silvery leaves and blue flowers that are darker than its annual cousin. The shimmering sliver leaves will brighten any dark corner and glow until frost. The variegated variety of Brunnera has large green and white leaves and is much larger than Jack Frost. It is a stunning plant which seems to need more light than the other varieties and is a little difficult to place but worth the effort.

Cimicifuga‘Brunette’ or black snakeroot at 5 to 7 feet gets high marks for elegance and presence. The large white plumes that appear late in the season and make for winter interest generally last until spring. The tall stalks seem almost wind proof. The flowers can be dried so enjoy them either outside or in.

Many grasses will thrive in partial shade. The queen among these is Hakonechloa ‘aureola’ a gorgeous waterfall of green and gold that will grow in full and partial shade. An underappreciated work horse in the grass department is Carex siderastica ‘variegata’. This green and white short perky grass will grow equally well in sun or shade and somewhat resembles a short narrow-leafed hosta. It is not invasive, just reliable.

A rose bush that deserves more accolades is Rosa Rubifolia with lovely mauve/green leaves. After it produces dainty pink blooms, the rose hips are attractive into late fall. When grown in the shade it needs regular pruning as it can "take off" looking for light.

One of the best Clematis for shade and very reliable is a pink blooming variety called. Hegley Hybrid. The more sun; the more bloom. However, 20 or so blooms in shade is not to be sneezed at and seem to wave cheerily.

Corydalis elata is a "wonderbar" plant – probably one of my top favourite shade plants. There is a corydalis nobilis that is a bulb, which is a real joy, blooms early and disappears and there are others including the common yellow types. But the real joy is the blue corydalis, some of which are not reliably hardy here. However, Corydalis elata has been grown in Peterborough since 1903, zone 3, from China growth is slow but there are now two lovely blue plants.

Kirengeshoma palmate is as large as a shrub 36 to 40 inches high and almost twice as wide. Few shade plants bloom late but this one has lovely yellow blooms on arching stems. It may grow in the ditches in Korea and Japan but it should have a place of honour in a large shade garden.

Many more wonderful shade plants are available and interesting foliage and colour combinations are easier with every year as interest in shade.