ProblemSolver Plants for Heavy Shade

Annuals and Bulbs

Solenostemon scutellarioides
Coleus

Coleus is a tropical tender perennial (grown as an annual in the St. Louis area) that has been a popular foliage plant since at least Victorian times. It has been hybridized over the years into an almost infinite number of leaf color combinations including most colors of the spectrum except true blue. Hybrids range in size from dwarf 6” tall plants to large mounded 36” tall plants. Leaves frequently feature mixtures of colors in irregular patterns.

Caladium bicolor
Angel wings

Caladiums are grown exclusively for their bold and colorful foliage. Plants typically grow in clumps rising 1-2.5' tall. Large, arrowhead-shaped leaves are various shades of green mottled and blotched with pink, red, white or combinations thereof often with distinctively colored veins.
Hyacinthoides hispanica 'Excelsior'
Spanish bluebell

‘Excelsior’ is a popular cultivar that is slightly taller than the species at  22” tall. It is a bulbous perennial that produces a clump of 2-6 strap-shaped leaves from which rises a rigid flower stem typically containing up to 12-15 hanging, bell-shaped, bluish-lavender flowers from April to early May.

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Narcissus (group)
Daffodils

Daffodils are bulbous perennials that bloom in early spring. They can be planted in areas that are densely shaded in summer but that receive plenty of sunshine in spring (such as, beneath deciduous trees); however, they are not suited for the dense shade of an evergreen. Depending upon species or hybrid type, flowers appear singly or in clusters atop stems rising from 6-30” tall. Flowers generally feature a trumpet or cup (the corona) surrounded by six petals in colors ranging from white to yellow to orange to pink to bicolors. Flowers are sometimes fragrant.

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Shrubs

Clethra alnifolia 'Ruby Spice'
Sweet pepperbush

‘Ruby Spice’ is noted for its extremely fragrant rose-pink flowers. It typically grows 4-6’ tall and blooms on the current year’s growth for approximately 4-6 weeks in July and August. Dark green leaves turn a variable but generally attractive yellow/golden brown in fall. Flowers are very attractive to butterflies and bees. Plant near a patio to enjoy the fragrant late summer bloom or in wet locations.

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Itea virginica 'Henry's Garnet'
Virginia sweetspire

This versatile shrub typically grows 3-4' tall and features fragrant, tiny white flowers borne in cylindrical, drooping racemes that cover the shrub with bloom in early summer. Dark green leaves turn an attractive garnet red in autumn, sometimes persisting on the shrub until December. Also good for wet locations.

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Lindera benzoin
Spice bush

This Missouri native shrub typically grows 6-12'  high. Aromatic greenish-yellow flowers appear in clusters along the branches in early spring before the foliage emerges. Male and female flowers are on separate plants with the male flowers being larger and showier than the female ones. Flowers of female plants give way to bright red drupes, which mature in fall and are attractive to birds. The light green leaves are aromatic when crushed and turn an attractive yellow in autumn. The larva (caterpillar) of the beautiful spicebush swallowtail butterfly feeds on the leaves of this shrub.
Nandina domestica
Heavenly bamboo

This broadleaf evergreen shrub is grown for its interesting foliage and its often spectacular fruit display. It typically grows 4-8’ tall and 2-4’ wide. In St. Louis, it is semi-evergreen to deciduous, and typically grows shorter since the stems often die to the ground in winter. It is commonly called heavenly bamboo because its erect, cane-like stems and compound leaves resemble bamboo, but it actually belongs to the barberry family. Best fruiting occurs when grown in groups.

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Ferns

Athyrium filix-femina
Lady fern

Lady fern is a deciduous fern that features lacy light green fronds which grow in a dense circular shuttlecock-like clump reaching 2-3' tall. Each frond (leaf) has twenty to thirty pairs of leaflets with narrow pointed tips.

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Athyrium niponicum var. pictum
Japanese painted fern

Japanese painted fern is one of the most popular cultivated ferns. It is a deciduous fern with a weeping habit which typically grows 18" tall and features a slowly spreading clump of triangular, variegated fronds. Fronds are a soft grayish-green with an overlay of silvery hues accented by contrasting dark maroon midribs.

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Matteuccia struthiopteris
Ostrich fern

Ostrich fern is a clump-forming, upright to arching, deciduous fern which typically grows 2-3' tall but may reach 6' tall in moist, cool climates. The showy parts of this fern are the finely dissected, medium green fronds which, as the common name suggests, exhibit the feathery appearance of long ostrich plumes. The familiar "fiddleheads" emerge in spring.
Polystichum acrostichoides
Christmas fern

Christmas fern is a Missouri native fern which typically grows in a fountain-like clump 2' tall and features leathery, lance-shaped, evergreen (green at Christmas time as the common name suggests) fronds. In spring, young fiddleheads are silvery and scaled. Evergreen fronds provide good winter interest for the landscape.

Perennials

Anemone sylvestris
Snowdrop windflower

This spring-blooming anemone features cup-shaped,  fragrant white flowers with showy yellow anthers in the center. Flowers are borne singly on upright stems growing 18" tall above medium green, deeply-lobed foliage. Flowers give way to white, woolly seed heads. Repeat bloom may occur in the cooler weather of early autumn. This is a rhizomatous plant that can be very aggressive in loose soils.
Arum italicum
Italian arum

This arum resembles our native Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema tryphyllum). Flowers appear in spring and consist of (1) an erect, finger-like spadix covered with tiny, creamy white flowers and (2) a large, sheath-like, light green spathe (bract) which partially envelops the spadix like a hood. The glossy grayish-green leaves are arrowhead-shaped with pale green midribs. After bloom, the leaves and spathe die back leaving only the thick spadix which develops attractive, bright orange-red berries in summer. New leaves emerge in autumn and remain evergreen in warm winter climates but die back in cold winter climates such as St. Louis where they emerge again in early spring. All parts of this plant are toxic.
Asarum canadense
Wild ginger

Wild ginger is a Missouri native spring wildflower which spreads slowly by rhizomes to form an attractive ground cover for shady areas. It features two heart-shaped to kidney-shaped, handsomely veined, dark green leaves. Although not related to culinary ginger (Zingiber officinale), the roots of this plant produce a scent that is reminiscent of it. Fresh or dried roots were used by early Americans as a ginger substitute, but the plant is not normally used today for culinary purposes.
Astilbe 'Rheinland'
Astilbe

Astilbes are a mainstay of shade and woodland gardens. They are clump-forming perennials which feature graceful, fern-like mounds of compound leaves and tiny flowers densely packed into erect plumes. ‘Rheinland’ typically forms a dark green foliage mound 9-12” tall with plumes of clear pink flowers appearing on upright, reddish stems reaching 24” tall.

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Begonia grandis
Hardy begonia

This is the only species of begonia that is winter hardy in the St. Louis area. It is a clump-forming perennial that typically forms a bushy mound of foliage 2’ tall on branching stems. Large leaves are medium to olive green above and reddish green with red veining beneath. Male and female pale pink flowers bloom in pendent clusters from July to early fall. Plants may also self-seed.

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Epimedium × versicolor 'Sulphureum'
Bishop's hat

Epimedium, also commonly called barrenwort is primarily used as a ground cover in shady areas. 'Sulphureum' features short-spurred yellow flowers and compound, medium green leaves with heart-shaped leaflets that form attractive foliage mounds. New leaves of this cultivar usually emerge reddish tinged in spring, mature to green and turn reddish in fall.

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Helleborus orientalis
Hellebore

Helleborus orientalis, commonly called Lenten rose, is a late winter-blooming perennial which typically grows 1-1.5' tall. It features large, cup-shaped, rose-like flowers that usually face downward. Flower color is extremely variable, ranging from white to pink to light rose-purple, frequently with interior spotting. The glossy dark green leaves are evergreen in warm climates but deciduous in extremely cold winters. In the St. Louis area, plants will remain evergreen in moderate winters, but may become scorched and tattered in extremely cold weather, particularly if not insulated by snow cover. Blooms in late winter (sometimes when snow is still present) and continues into spring, with a long, 8-10 week bloom period. Leaves, stems and roots are poisonous.

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Hosta 'June'
Hosta

'June' features a mound of thick, variegated leaves with gold centers and irregular blue-green margins, with racemes of bell-shaped, pale lavender flowers on 20" scapes. A dependable and versatile perennial requiring little care. Grown primarily for its beautiful foliage which provides color, contrast and texture to the landscape. Dense foliage crowds out most garden weeds.

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Lamium maculatum 'White Nancy'
Spotted deadnettle

An excellent ground cover for brightening shaded areas, this spotted deadnettle cultivar is a mat-forming perennial that typically grows 6-8" high and spreads 2-3' wide via sprawling stems that root as they go. It features variegated silvery-white leaves with greenish margins. Clusters of small white flowers appear at stem ends in late spring to early summer.

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Liriope muscari
Lily turf

Lily turf is a grass-like perennial which typically grows 12-18" tall and features clumps of strap-like, arching, glossy, dark green leaves. Clumps slowly expand by short stolons, but do not spread aggressively like Liriope spicata. Erect, showy flower spikes with violet-purple flowers rise above the leaves in late summer. Flowers resemble grape hyacinth (Muscari), hence the species name. Flowers give way to blackish berries which often persist into winter.

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Pachysandra terminalis
Japanese pachysandra

Japanese pachysandra is a shrubby, evergreen ground cover which grows 8-12" high and spreads to form a dense carpet of rich, dark green foliage. Oval leaves appear at the stem ends. White flower spikes appear in early spring. Flowers are not particularly showy, but on close inspection are quite attractive.

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Polygonatum odoratum var. pluriflorum 'Variegatum'
Solomon's seal

This Solomon's seal cultivar is an upright, arching perennial which typically grows in a mound 1-2' tall. Pairs of small, bell-shaped, white flowers appear in spring dangling along and underneath the arching stems. Flowers are sweetly fragrant. Young stems are tinged with maroon. Flowers are followed by blue-black berries in autumn. Variegated leaves are soft green with white tips and margins and turn an attractive yellow in autumn. Variegated foliage is attractive in flower arrangements even when not in flower.

Pulmonaria saccharata 'Mrs. Moon'
Lungwort

This clump-forming lungwort cultivar is more valued for its attractive foliage than its flowers. It typically grows 12" high and spreads 18-24" wide. It features clumps of large medium green leaves with silver spots. Drooping clusters of funnel-shaped flowers appear in early spring. Flowers open pink and mature to blue.

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Evergreens, Sedges and Vines

Taxus × media 'Densiformis'
Yew

This hybrid yew cultivar is a semi-dwarf, dense, spreading, evergreen shrub which typically grows in a mound 3-4' tall but spreads 5-7' wide. Yews are classified as conifers, but female plants produce red, fleshy, single-seeded fruit instead of cones. 'Densiformis' is a female cultivar with lustrous, dark green, thin-needled foliage. All parts of this plant are poisonous if ingested.

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Carex 'Ice Dance'
Sedge

'Ice Dance' is a dense, spreading sedge which is grown for its foliage effect. Reaching 12" tall, it features grass-like, stiff leaves which are dark green in the center with clean white borders. This sedge is evergreen in the South, maintaining a good appearance in both summer and winter, but is not evergreen in the St. Louis area, although some foliage color will persist through the winter.

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Hedera helix
English ivy

English ivy is a vigorous, aggressive, fast-growing, woody evergreen perennial that is primarily grown as a climbing vine or trailing ground cover. As a climbing vine, it may over time grow upwards to 50-100' in height. As a ground cover, it typically grows 6-9" tall but spreads over time 50-100'.

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Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris
Climbing hydrangea

Climbing hydrangea is a vigorous deciduous vine that clings and climbs by aerial rootlets and typically grows 30-50'. If grown as a ground cover, it can eventually spread to cover 200 square feet. It features flattened clusters of fragrant white flowers (lacecaps) in late spring to early summer. The overall effect can be stunning. Heart-shaped dark green leaves persist on the vine into late autumn, with little fall color. Exfoliating, reddish brown bark of mature plants is attractive in winter.

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